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Therefore, it's so good for a woman to wonderfully explain tricky passages of scripture, delight in complementarianism, and show how much value God places on women. Nielson shows understanding of, and compassion about the abuse of women that has happened within religion, from elevating women as fertility gods, to reducing them to sacrifices.
The Body Sculpting Bible for Women, Fourth Edition
She also empathises with why people may take issue with how woman's role is explained in the Bible. These issues have led to many women questioning why God made them with unique pains, struggles and a supposedly lesser value. But she answers pretty much every question one can think of — why learn about marriage roles if I'm single?
How can I worship Jesus the man? Is the 'informal' teaching of Priscilla and Aquila of any less value answer - no! Were commands just for the culture or for all time?
Why must women struggle with unique burdens like childbirth? Are Christian sexual standards repressive?
Nielson always takes the reader back to the Bible with her answers. She is always quick to point out that abuses and struggles come from sin and she always returns to the creation of man and woman in the Garden of Eden.
A woman's body, role and gifts exist to give God glory. Women and God was expertly written, and its goal is to direct people to worship of God. I thought she handled it with care and with respect, but also with directness which was nice. Morgan Lee: So, I'd never heard the word yonic before last week. I don't know if -- Caleb Lindgren: Yeah, I don't think I had either Morgan Lee: Which, from what I understand, and Robin can correct me if I'm wrong, this is the term that's used particularly to describe the vaginal form.
And so, it's a modifier often times, when that's used in artistic capacities. So that was something that I just like flat-out learned.
And I think kind of my gut reaction is actually just like the decision to kind of do this podcast, you know, which is this larger sense of spending some decent amount of time in Europe last year, which if you're there obviously, you know very quickly that you can find depictions of men and women all over churches all over Europe, and being kind of just interested about how the church really shaped ideas that we have about women.
You and I, we were prepping for this, were just talking about illiteracy that was very common in many different centuries of church history, at least by, you know, populations that were by and large Christian, and to what extent these images that were all on the walls and ceilings of these churches kind of change people's ideas of femininity and so forth.
So, for the record, we have asked Robin some very deep questions, and I think you and I are both really curious about this topic. So, Robin we are thankful that you are up for the challenge of handling me and Caleb in this conversation.
Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible's View of Women
I think we just need to back up before we kind of talk about more of the specifics about women's art, and I'm wondering if you can just give us a very very very broad overview of some of the major eras of Christian art for people who feel like they have never really been familiar with this topic before.
Robin Jensen: You know, Christian art really follows just art history eras. I think nothing's different really about it that I would select to point out. We have, you know, early Christian art, which is really sometimes very close to Roman art and then Medieval art, which is sort of a Carolingian Gothic and Renaissance, as everybody kind of knows.
I think the important thing is to think about Christian art as both Western and Eastern and not necessarily just European. So, you might think about Coptic art and Syriac art and art from the eastern part of the Christian world as well.
But I think maybe most interesting, from my expertise and that people don't know, is that there really isn't any Christian art that survives before about the beginning of the third century. So that's one whole kind of a puzzle as to why, and there are lots of possible answers and might take us all afternoon to unpack that. But I think that's kind of important to know that the earliest examples we have of Christian art date to around the year , at the very earliest, and probably even after that.
And most of what has survived comes to us from the West, a good portion of that is from the area around Rome.
Maybe people have heard of the catacombs in Rome, where there's paintings on the walls of these burial chambers. And also sculpture that was made for people, so we call them sarcophagi, but they're really coffins for bodies. So, in addition to the fact that we have a kind of have a limited time period in which to get started, we also have kind of a limited context that's mostly funereal, or to do with burial.
And then by the fourth century, everything changes, and we have a lot more, though still West. Caleb Lindgren: Yeah, that probably relates to the advent of Constantine and his adjustment on position towards Christianity, and then later on you get-- shoot, I'm forgetting the emperor who makes Christianity the religion of the Empire--and so probably have-- Robin Jensen: Theodosius the First.
Caleb Lindgren: Yeah, Theodosius.
There it is, Theodosius. So, it's probably related in part to politics why you have access and preservation of the art. Is that true? Robin Jensen: I wouldn't actually say politics as much as wealth.
When the church is finally patronized by the emperor and aristocratic families more and more convert to Christianity, people have money to build beautiful churches and to make beautiful spaces. I tend to shy away a little bit from the political answer to everything, that's just what I do. But I think it's a time when the liturgies were elaborated and made much more complicated, but not for political reasons, but I think for the very fact that people are interested in the in the beauty and buildings.
So, we start to see some tremendous changes in that time. It would, again I don't want to I don't want to bore everybody with a long lecture on the history of Christian art, but it really does transform.
For instance, Christians are the first ones to really glass mosaics in church apses around this time. That's a huge step. It's a wonderful thing to see, but it wouldn't have happened without the kind of patronage of wealthy aristocrats who become Christians. Morgan Lee: I've traveled in both the Muslim and Christian world, and one of the things that you notice really quickly when you go to mosques is that you're never going to find humans depicted there.
That is obviously very blatantly not the case when it comes to Christian art. Robin, I'm wondering has Christian art always depicted women?
Hard Questions, Beautiful Truth
Robin Jensen: Always. Surprisingly though, what you expect to find in Christian art is sometimes not there in the initial stages. So, if you were to think about what are the two most common themes in Christian art from all the centuries of Christian art through time, you might say well the crucifix and then you might say the Madonna and child. And neither of those are going to be appearing until much later.
So those aren't the things that we see immediately. Mostly what we see at the beginning are Biblical narrative images, and as much or more from the Old Testament as from the New. So that's kind of a surprise for people. And in that we do have women and men. Maybe a few more men than women, but I don't think it's significantly depopulated of women.
So instead of the Virgin Mary, and we do have the Virgin Mary a little bit mostly with the Magi, Adoration of the Magi scene, but you also have the figures like Susanna. We see the woman with the hemorrhage being healed by Jesus. We have a lot of Eve, Eve and Adam together. Sarah shows up eventually, as well as Pharaoh's daughter. Other figures like that. Caleb Lindgren: For those of our listeners at that aren't familiar with Susanna or may have forgotten who she is, she actually comes from the Apocrypha and in an addition to the Book of Daniel.
And it's a story about a young woman, a virtuous young woman, who is bathing in her garden and some lustful Elders observe her and so they try to blackmail her into sleeping with them by saying that she was planning to meet a man.
But she refuses to be blackmailed and stands on her innocence. And so, the prophet Daniel interrupts this discussion between them and finds no basis for their charges against her. The false accusers are put to death and so she's vindicated in that way.
Robin Jensen: Susanna, for some interesting reason, is very popular in early Christian art. Caleb Lindgren: Why do you think that is? Robin Jensen: One of the things I think that might explain it is that early Christian iconography or art is, as I said, it's largely biblical narratives in the beginning. And I think Susanna, I think she sort of a Christ figure in that she's an innocent who's accused and, in some ways, released by the figure of Daniel, sort of almost a Pilate figure.
You know, he says, 'I cannot find this innocent woman guilty of this crime. But she is a hero.
Woman's Body and the Social Body in Hosea
I can't always explain why we have certain things, we don't have others, but that's just one thought. Morgan Lee: All right, so I would like to hear a little bit about how these characters kind of fade away and we then kind of end up with seeing Mary or the Madonna all the time, because that is definitely been my experience. And so, when you're naming these other examples, I was like wow, I don't remember the last time I was in a church that had those particular characters Illustrated.
Robin Jensen: So, I actually have just teaching a class this semester on the art and imagery of the Virgin Mary in Christianity, so I'm pretty full of this. Morgan Lee: Wow, that's awesome. Robin Jensen: One of the things that one could say, with some carefulness, is that the cult of the Virgin Mary though it certainly existed in the first four centuries in some way or shape, it really takes off in the early part of the fifth century after the Council of Ephesus in when Mary is declared to be the mother of God in that documental council.
At that point the interest in the Virgin Mary, and the beginnings of the depictions of her, and even churches dedicated to her, really begin to emerge and become much more prominent. So, I think that's part of the answer. The other part of the answer I think, is that we also see a transition away from a lot of Biblical images into more what I would call iconic paintings, portraits of saints.
And so that changes the character of Christian art and we started to have much more devotional art and less sort of didactic or storytelling art, if you would.
So that is also a shift at the end of the fourth and into the fifth century.
Morgan Lee: Maybe you can talk a little bit about how icons first started appearing in the church? Robin Jensen: We don't really have a portrait of Jesus as such even, and by portrait, I mean something where you just have a face or a body looking forward and not allow any kind of narrative context. It's not telling us a story.
It's simply presenting us the figure. And that is quite, it's relatively late. I mean, we don't see a lot of that until the end of the fourth century and into the fifth. And then once that happens, I think people really become much more tuned to devotional images.
They think that should pray with, images that would be used for inspiration and less for teaching.
I don't want to make it this kind of really too simplistic, but that's a general move. And I think it has a little bit to do with the fact that early on I think Christians were sort of reticent to think to do this because it looked a little too much like pagan idolatry perhaps.
Caleb Lindgren: That actually relates to something I wanted to ask about, related to the Cult of Mary. That it's been suggested by some that there is like fertility overtones to The Cult of Mary and in the way that the Madonna and Child is sometimes depicted, and that the Madonna-Child in the Cult of Mary was a way of sort of either addressing, combating, or sort of Christianizing the fertility cults in the pagan world and the kind of paganistic way of looking at that.
Is that accurate or is that a misrepresentation? Robin Jensen: I think it's an overstatement. I don't think there's nothing to that. Certainly, we can say that in Egypt maybe some of the Cult of Isis, some of the images of Isis may be influential in the way that Mary is depicted. I think we have to be careful about thinking about this goddess background to the Christian image of Mary.
And yes, she's often depicted, in fact, in Egypt early, and then fairly soon in the West, in the Middle Ages, as a nursing mother. And I think that has a lot to do, I would not say with fertility, as much as with nurturing, as caring and feeding the child from her own body.
So that becomes a symbol that I wouldn't say is a substitute for fertility. I would say it's a big emphasis on Mary is a type of the Church, and the Church is also our mother. And so, this will get you into the baptistry. And I'm going to just say this very quickly but, hello Tish Warren if you're listening.
Because she was at Vanderbilt when I was also there. It's an unusual one.
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I don't think there are a lot of these, but I do think it has everything to do with the church as mother, as the birth-giver to the family.
I sort of step back from the idea of fertility, but I wouldn't step back from the idea of fecundity. That makes a difference. Caleb Lindgren: I wanted to zero in on that sort of like distinction point because I think that's part of what's interesting to me in this discussion. One of the reasons why we get some really strong reactions to what Bolz-Weber was doing, and then the way that Tish was responding, was that a lot of like representation of the female form, in particular female sex organs and things like that, are very taboo in our culture across the board.
It doesn't matter how you depict it, like there's a lot of debate these days about whether or not women should be able to breastfeed openly in public and things like that. And then, you know, you see what sometimes strikes our current sensibilities as shocking, these older Christian depictions of Mary breastfeeding Jesus, you know with the breast fully exposed. And the distinctions between like what is appropriate and what is not, and what signifies the wrong sort of exposure and the right sort of exposure, is really interesting to me.
And I was curious if there is any kind of indication of how they made those distinctions.
Like what constitutes an appropriate display? Robin Jensen: If you look at those images of the nursing Mary, sometimes we call her Maria Lactans, a fecund term, but she's always covered except for her breasts.
I mean, this is not a sexy woman. She's completely draped in her veil and her breasts often is not looking all that, you know, it's not very correct anatomically. It looks a little funny sometimes. And part of the reason for that is the baby's face is usually turned toward the viewer.
And anybody who's ever nursed a baby, and I've nursed babies, knows that's pretty hard to manage. So, I think she's actually very modestly clothed in most of those images of the nursing mother.
And so, the image is not suggesting sensuality, or sexuality, or I don't think even really fertility, so much as nurturing and feeding and caretaking and loving.
If you look at the images that way, I think you see them differently. But I will cite a really great article and I'm now blanking the name--if anybody wants to email me, I'll try to give them the name of this article and the title and where to find it-- but it shows how it's not so much, she's saying, a denigration of Eve, as a way of showing Mary as the one who somehow redeems Eve.
Both of them women, one disobedient, the other obedient, and so forth. All those beautiful contrasts that we see often in the literature, and sometimes not so very nice about Eve. But I think that that is also part of the story. Morgan Lee: So, in my experience, sometimes you're in this particularly male-dominated world, so much that the female presence or the female body itself can be something that is inherently political.
Or inherently symbolic, I guess. Is that the case too? Does that start to creep into Christian art as well? Robin Jensen: Yes, I think that's true. I think that, you know, if we show Eve and Adam together as nudes however, that's the story isn't it?
So, I steer away from seeing it as a completely political, and I'm maybe just a minority voice here. So, you know, that that is true. Other people would disagree with me. But I steer away from seeing this acceptance, except in some very extreme examples in probably in the late Middle Ages, in which we're making any kind of hugely negative statement about women. And I think it's pretty wonderful actually that we have these images of the Virgin who is shown with the child on her lap and is the caretaking mother.
And they're often very tender and very beautiful. Maybe the interesting character to turn to in a discussion like this would be Mary Magdalene. And I was wondering about that because I've also taught some courses--I taught them and when I was a Vanderbilt--on Mary Magdalene, Eve, and the Virgin Mary together as sort of three figures in the history of Christian art.
And it really was sort of surprising to my students that Mary Magdalene is not always depicted in a negative light at all. As a prostitute or something. In fact, for most of the time, in the earliest images of Mary Magdalene, she's the apostle to the Apostles, she's preaching, she's working miracles, she's doing all kinds of work.
She's the first to witness Jesus resurrection in the Gospel of John, and so that scene of her reaching out to touch him is a very common one. So, these are not negative.
In fact, even when she becomes rather sensuously depicted in the Renaissance and post-Renaissance periods by artists like Titian, she's actually quite passionate and she is sensual, but it's as if she's passionately in love with Christ. Not somebody who is scandalous in any way.
She might be kind of nude sometimes, but as I think it's her passion that is so wonderful to contrast with the Virgin Mary. Caleb Lindgren: Yeah, that actually reminds me of the famous sculpture of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Similar passion, ecstatic experience, a lot of people argue there's an erotic side to that, but she's very modestly dressed.
She's got this whole like kind of robe that she's wearing and it's sort of this, yeah, it's just like passionate modesty. Robin Jensen: Because women mystics are very passionate and I think it's something that we could point to as a positive, not a negative. Morgan Lee: So, you had mentioned at the beginning of the conversation this really great point that Christian art should be seen as both Western and Eastern.
And so, the Roman Empire splits just before AD and I'm wondering how you can talk about how that disruption changes Christian art. Robin Jensen: It doesn't change it so tremendously much. I think what we have now is the ability to build beautiful churches, to decorate them. We are not looking only at the art that survives and funerary context, but now art that is in an ecclesial context. And the church has become more and more elaborate, the liturgies become more elaborate and that's the biggest change.
It's just simply that you see so much more, in East and West.
What is different maybe is, and eventually of course will have art from all parts of the Christian world, so I don't just want to say West and East, you know in time we're going to have Christian art from every part of the world and all the continents and in all kinds of ways. But while the West will recover the idea of three-dimensional art in the Early Middle Ages in the West, the East will never do that. It will continue to sort of resist statuary, whereas the West will emphasize that.
And so that's a kind of interesting change. Morgan Lee: Do you know why that was that that kind of died out? Robin Jensen: Well, it didn't ever die out. The East would never do it. Because I think it might seem too much like pagan idolatry. So, if you have a two-dimensional painting, an icon if you will, they're very flat, they're very shallow in the in the way the images are depicted.
And I think the whole point is so that you don't emphasize super realism or illusionary art that makes you think you're looking at a real figure, and you're looking at something holy and sacred, which is categorically different than the things that we have in our world necessarily that we see every day.
In the West, the art becomes much more emphasized that we see much more statuary developing and there's less of a theological explanation for how one prays with these things.The Body Sculpting Bible for Women, Platinum Edition includes exercises and workouts plus nutritional guidance, meal plans, the inside scoop on supplements, advice on keeping fit while traveling, and weightlifting information for teens, seniors, and expectant mothers.
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