Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Image of the New Woman

Barbie. Lady Gaga. The Spice Girls. Desperate Housewives.

It is virtually impossible to live in our society today without being bombarded - assaulted even - by pagan images. I don't mean pantheistic gods and goddesses, I mean the over-sexualized, often anatomically impossible, air-brushed images that feed our women the message that to be feminine is to be sexually available. (If you don't believe me, walk into a store that sells maternity clothes. The message you often receive is that even pregnant women should still try to be sexy.)

This is the image that is placed before our women.

Does the Church offer us an alternative? Let us look in the beginning.

In the beginning, we find a man and a woman. We know the man as Adam. However, in the Genesis account of our first parents, the woman is not given her name, Eve, right away. In fact, for a whole chapter, including the account of the Fall, the woman is known as simply that - the Woman. In the beginning, Eve is the feminine model. 

What do we know about this Woman? First, she begins her life and enters the story in a pre-Fall state - that is, she lacks the stain of Original sin. Second, she is married. The writer of Genesis describes their relationship as the origin of the one flesh marriage union, and concludes by referring to the couple as "the man and his wife" (Genesis 2.25 ESV). Third, as long as she is the Woman, she is ostensibly a virgin. It isn't until after the Fall and after she is given her new name Eve that she and Adam conceive their first child, Cain.  

More importantly, in the story we find that it is the Woman to whom the Serpent first comes to tempt mankind: "[The Serpent] said to the woman, "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?"" (3.1b, ESV) It is the Woman who is deceived by the Serpent, as Paul later notes: "and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor." (1 Timothy 2.14, ESV; Notice that Paul refers to her as 'the woman', not as 'Eve'). And it is the Woman who gives the forbidden fruit to Adam, whose "trespass resulted in condemnation for all people" (Romans 5.18, TNIV). In summary, the Woman, a married virgin lacking the stain of Original sin, is Satan's ally in the Fall of mankind - his first human ally in history. This is clearly no model to follow.

Sadly, many women do. In the Old testament we find Delilah seducing Samson, Solomon's foreign wives turning his heart toward idols, and Job's wife infamously imploring him: "Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!" (Job 2.9, NIV)

But there is another model of a Woman, also from the very beginning. While in the midst of meting out punishments for the Fall, even then God offers humanity a sign of future hope, the protoevangelium, or the first gospel. Speaking to the Serpent, God prophesies: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel." (Genesis 3.15, ESV) The Woman, just as she played a central role in the downfall of mankind, will be at the center of mankind's redemption.

We see glimpses of this new Woman throughout the Old Testament. The foreign woman Ruth remains loyal to her Jewish mother-in-law and joins the messianic family line. The mother in 2nd Maccabees couragously strengthens her seven sons toward martyrdom. Even Proverbs, though it often warns men to protect themselves against those women in the line of Eve who lead men astray, also sees a new line of the Woman that is based on faithfulness to God: "Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised." (Proverbs 31.30, ESV)

This new line of the faithful Woman finds its own culmination in the culmination of the redemption of all of humanity. The protoevangelium is fulfilled: the Messiah - he who would definitively bruise the head of the serpent - is born of a woman, whom we know as Mary.

What do we know about Mary? The Church teaches that, in preparation for her special role in the redemption of mankind, God, in view of the merits of Christ's work on the cross, prevented Mary from receiving the stain of original sin from the very moment of her conception. ("[H]ence she was redeemed in a manner more sublime." Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus) Mary is betrothed to Joseph. Mary is also a virgin. And before bringing his Son into the world, God the Father bids first the help and consent of a woman. Mary is God's first ally in his redemption of mankind.

Thus, just as the first Woman was a virgin pledged to a man and chose without the effects of Original sin to become the first ally of Satan in the Fall of mankind, Mary, a virgin pledged to man, chose without the effects of Original sin to become the first ally of God in the Redemption of mankind! Mary is the New Eve, the new Woman of Scripture. The great Church father Jerome proclaims in the 4th century: "Death came through Eve, but life has come through Mary." (Epistle 22.21)

Just as Eve was known as the Woman in Genesis, Mary is known as the Woman in the New Testament. In explaining the Gospel, Paul writes to the Galatians: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons." (Galatians 4.4-5, ESV) He does not refer to Jesus' mother as Mary but as "woman". Paul is alluding back the original Woman of Scripture, Eve.

We also find Jesus referring to Mary as the Woman. At the marriage at Cana, when Mary bids Jesus help in procuring more wine, he responds: "Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come." (John 2.4, ESV) While on the cross, before he gives her as a mother to John, Jesus says to Mary: "Woman, behold, your son!" (John 19.26, ESV)

Let me qualify this for a moment by making clear that Jesus is the wholly preeminent model of the human life. Looking to the creature Mary as a model is in no way intended to obscure or diminish his infinitely unique place as God incarnate. The recent Vatican II council taught that all of Mary's role "flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on His mediation, depends entirely on it and draws all its power from it. In no way does it impede, but rather does it foster the immediate union of the faithful with Christ." Mary is his first disciple, redeemed fully by his merits on the cross. When we look to Mary, we remember her last words recorded in Scripture: speaking to the servants at the wedding feast in Cana, she instructs them concerning Jesus, "Do whatever he tells you." (John 2.5, ESV) Mary provides for us an example of holy obedience to God.

Our hyper-sexualized society today places before our women the images of celebrities and fashion models that follow in the line of the first woman Eve. But we have learned that the model of Eve was not the last word. There is a new Woman, a new order of what it means to be feminine. It is not based on insecurity, impurity, and competition but on faithfulness, holiness, and love! Let us bring the good news!  

The feminine image that used to be mass produced and placed before all women was the model that the Church gives us*. I call us not to flee from images, but to make a return to holy images. Let us replace our pornography with the Pieta, our racy magazines with the rosary, and the pop icon Madonna with the sacred icon Madonna and Child. I call for the end of the commoditization of our women. Let us proclaim our emancipation from the slavery of dehumanizing secular media images, and instead produce and behold images that are of the Church, by the Church, and for the Church, images that we know will not perish in the new Heaven and new Earth. Let us put before our women the image that God gives us, the image of the new Woman, the faithful, the modest, the graceful Ever-Virgin Holy Mother of God, Mary.

P.S. This post is adapted from a paper I wrote for school. If you'd be interested in the full paper, which goes into greater detail, email me.

*I first heard this pointed out in a talk given by Frank Runyeon, a practicing Catholic and professional actor, on March 7th, 2010, at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Bethel, CT.


  1. Wonderfully written. We have many modern saints to look to as wonderful examples of what women are capable of (i.e. Mother Teresa). However, as amazing as they are, it's hard for a married woman to us that person wholly as their example. I am thankful we have the greatest womanly example of them all...Mary!

  2. If I could pick one thing that ticked me off about religious people, it's their overuse of the word "pagan." It seems to be a meaningless blanket term tacked on to anything religious people don't like. I don't understand your issue with "sexy" clothing - any sensible person should realize that looking attractive doesn't have to broadcast availability. If you can't understand that, then I'll buy up a bunch of beekeeper outfits and we can drive around and distribute them to pregnant women.

    Also, real classy pegging Eve as an "ally of Satan." From what I know of Genesis, no reason is given for the snake to select Eve over Adam. There's no paragraph depicting Adam rejecting the snake's offer - it seems to have been purely by chance. Or rather, the choice of Eve as the transgressor was a slick move by the people who wrote the Bible (men) to support the subjugation of women. So, we have poor Eve with no knowledge of right and wrong being faced with A MORAL DILEMMA. So unfair. I love how Adam's the poor innocent sap in all this - like he doesn't know what the tree and its fruit look like. (And if he didn't, then how could they be expected to avoid it?)

    And then there's Job. The ultimate example of God's apathy (maybe even antipathy) towards the plight of man. I don't know about you, but if my husband were being tormented at the behest of a voyeuristic maniac, I'd probably tell him to stop worshiping the bastard too. Actually, I'd probably just leave him and take the kids with me so we don't all get killed by God for gits and shiggles. But I'm "an ally of Satan!" Oooooooooooo! *waves hands in a spooky fashion*

    Be careful what you wish for on the "replace porn with images of Mary" campaign. You'd be surprised what can stimulate a man.

    I'm no militant feminist, but it really crawls under my skin when men try to speak for me. They're telling me how the media objectifies me, porn degrades me, and that they alone can guide me away from the precipice (and straight back to the kitchen, where I belong). It's a latent brand of sexism and it's more infuriating in some respects than the blatant kind.

    Oh, and just so you know I'm not 100% anti-Bible, you know what my favorite story of girl power in the Bible is? Judges 4:18-21

    18And Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said unto him, Turn in, my lord, turn in to me; fear not. And when he had turned in unto her into the tent, she covered him with a mantle.

    19And he said unto her, Give me, I pray thee, a little water to drink; for I am thirsty. And she opened a bottle of milk, and gave him drink, and covered him.

    20Again he said unto her, Stand in the door of the tent, and it shall be, when any man doth come and enquire of thee, and say, Is there any man here? that thou shalt say, No.

    21Then Jael Heber's wife took a nail of the tent, and took an hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died.

    Good stuff.

  3. Also Mother Teresa left people to languish in poorly maintained hospices while she funneled most of her charitable donations to convents. Not a woman *I'd* want to emulate.

  4. Jenna,

    I'm sorry you think Mother Theresa is not a woman you'd want to emulate. She was quite the humanitarian and is an excellent example of love and unselfishness for all of humanity.

    On a different note. While "There's no paragraph depicting Adam rejecting the snake's offer," the actual Hebrew used in Genesis 3 shows that Adam was with Eve while being tempted by the serpent. What's lost in the translation to the English is that the serpent's "you" is a 2nd person plural "you" in the Hebrew. So Adam was actually standing right there next to Eve and he never speaks up. He's just as responsible for the fall as she is. His action, or lack thereof, was cowardly in a big way!

    Also, Brantly wasn't arguing that women belong in the kitchen. He was simply saying that the model for women (and men for that matter) which society puts forth (in various forms) is very impoverished, with little or no dignity.

    Also, it's worth noting that what comes across in Scripture as "chauvinist" language to our modern ears, "woman" was not a term in ancient times that carried with it connotations of disrespect, specifically in the Bible. "Adam" is the Hebrew word for "humanity." So it would more accurately read "Let us make 'humanity' (adam) in our image" (Gen. 1:26). Interestingly, "man" ('adam' in Hebrew) in English Bibles is only used collectively (for all humanity) until God makes 'a' man ('adam' as Scripture calls him) in Genesis 2. So there is 'man' (humanity or 'adam') from which God makes 'a' man and 'a' woman. Additionally, in Genesis 2:23 the Hebrew words used for Man ('ish') and Woman ('ishshah') are strikingly similar. It's very interesting what's really in the text, which does not support the erroneous interpretations that some use to attempt to vindicate claims that the Bible teaches the subjugation of women.

    Such claims are, in truth, not well grounded and are patently false. On the contrary, it could very well be argued that the creation of the woman in Genesis 2 is actually the pinnacle, highpoint, or apex of creation itself. For God began to rightly order what "was without form and void" (Gen. 1:1) with light, then waters, then plants and animals (birds of the air, beasts of the fields, creatures of the water), THEN he comes to humanity, the man first, then the woman. There is an ascent from the beginning of creation to the end, which is capped off by the creation of the woman.

  5. "When men despise religion and women dress immodestly, it is the beginning of the end" - Seneca