Helen Paynter has written an important book, with the title The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: Why You Don’t Have to Submit to Domestic Abuse and Coercive Control (Abingdon: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2020). Given the depressingly constant stream of findings of abuse in church-run settings (such as those published by IICSA, Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse) and the alarming reports of sharp increases in incidents of domestic violence during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, as addressed in urgent appeals by Women’s Aid and Jewish Women’s Aid (#AMaskWontProtectHer), this book is especially timely.
Helen is a biblical scholar, as well as director of the Bristol-based Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence. She is also a Baptist minister and a medical doctor. (The latter, while assigned to a past life, crops up in the book, including in some vivid analogies). She is, in short, very impressive and The Shiloh Project has been grateful for Helen’s support and participation over the past years.
This book is written with accessibility in mind. It is a slim volume, with fewer notes than Helen’s (also succinct – given its place in a Routledge Focus series) academic book on another violent theme: Telling Terror in Judges 19: Rape and Reparation for the Levite’s Wife (Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2020, see here). Evoking a dialogue, Helen uses the direct address (‘you’) widely in this book and brings in her own experiences and encounters, too. After a succinct and thorough discussion on why, to her, the Bible is a tool and solace for the abused, not for abusers, Helen segues into practical advice: she recommends further readings and blogs, helplines and support organisations, resources for churches and for perpetrators, and she details a safety plan.
The book is both inspired by and for Christian women who have suffered, or who are suffering, domestic violence and coercive control, particularly at the hands of Christian abusers, such as their husbands, who use the Bible to justify or legitimate their actions (p.18). As Helen points out, ‘rates of abuse perpetration within church are about the same as rates in the general population’ (p.15).
Space is given up to (sometimes lengthy) quotations from the Bible; these quotations make the case against abusers. Again and again, Helen illustrates that the Bible depicts God and Jesus as abhorring injustice and standing with the oppressed and the vulnerable. This is taken to mean that God and Jesus side with victims and survivors of abuse and abhor domestic violence and coercive control. Presumably, therefore, the primary audience is not just Christian women1 who have suffered domestic abuse but who also wish to remain in the church, or wish to reclaim the Bible that has been used against them. This book is for survivors who stay – if not in an abusive domestic sphere, or marriage – then in their faith. It is not so much for those survivors who reject and and leave their faith. When leaving their faith, they may well reject along with it the Bible, which they have come to associate with violence, coercion, humiliation and denigration.
Helen acknowledges the church’s and some church leaders’ part both in active systemic abuse and in inaction in addressing abuse effectively (pp.88-96). She, too, remains committed to her faith, the Bible and the church, giving clear directives on how the church must change (pp.152-59). Like Ruth Everhart (whose book I have reviewed and extolled in an earlier post) Helen is determined to work with the Bible and from within the church to bring about justice.
I admire what both Ruth Everhart and Helen are doing. It is – no doubt about it – much harder to remain inside the church and make it better than to walk away. Both, moreover, don’t countenance the option of easy forgiveness. Helen makes it very clear that forgiveness, while it may be freely given, has its price (p.77-87). Also like Everhart, Helen refers to the impact of MeToo (p.142) and to church complicity in abuse and covering up abuse (pp.88-96); she, too, weaves in the words and experiences of those who have confided in her with considerable respectfulness, and she also addresses several audiences: women subjected to abuse and coercive control, people supporting them, church leaders, and perpetrators (pp.18-21, 150-162).
At various points, reading this book, I found myself enthusiastically agreeing with and admiring Helen. Foremost: her intention is, of course, entirely laudable. I can believe that this book will bring healing and comfort to many Christian women who have suffered spiritual abuse on top of other kinds of coercion, harm and violence at the hands of husbands or church leaders, weaponizing the Bible. That already makes the book worthwhile. Also, Helen’s point that atrocities described in the Bible are not ipso facto prescribed is an important one. Helen’s other book published this year, Telling Terror in Judges 19, makes this point very compellingly. With Telling Terror Helen has chosen to focus on one of the most horrifying stories in all of the Hebrew Bible. Her argument is that both the viciousness of events recounted and the outraged response to these events indicate that this brutal story is not condoning, let alone recommending, the abusiveness it depicts. In this book, too, Helen has no qualms about saying that even revered figures in the Bible sometimes do wrong – like Abraham, when he pimps out his wife (p.48). She also raises the probability that the violence done to Jesus included sexual assault (p.118). Given her audience, that’s gutsy.
Other things piqued my admiration, too. I very much like the comparison of Hagar and Ishmael with Abraham and Isaac (pp.109-112): I had never picked up on the evident parallels. And Helen also convinced me on the point of why Jesus is persisting on writing on the ground in John 4, where the woman caught in adultery is brought before him: he is averting his gaze, so as not to shame the woman further (p.122)! Helen’s careful reading and imaginative engagement with the story world can transpire in illuminating and persuasive interpretations.
But I wasn’t persuaded by all of the book. Admittedly, this will be due in part to the book not being ‘my cup of tea’: because I’m not in the church and because I do not feel a need to redeem the Bible. I am not someone who feels that ‘Jesus understands’ (hurt, betrayal, suffering, etc pp.113-118). Don’t get me wrong: I’d rather have the Bible be used in Helen’s vein, to defend the vulnerable, than to procure abusers. But I do actually see the Bible as part of the problem. I am not certain at all, as Helen is, that ‘The Bible does not belong to abusers. And though you may hear echoes of their voices there occasionally, they are only found there to be contradicted, subverted and humbled’ (p.11). When I read John 8:31-47, I hear echoes of antisemitism, not righteous anger. To me, these words of Jesus are not ‘refreshing’ (p.98). When I read the metaphors of the early chapters in Hosea or of Ezekiel 16 and 23 (which Helen knows well, of course, but which do not feature in this book), I find God to appear very much like an abuser – as has been discussed fully by other biblical scholars.2 And when I read Numbers 5, where a woman suspected of adultery without any evidence, is subjected to a gruelling ritual at the Temple and where a jealous husband is explicitly exonerated of all guilt (5:31), I see an abuser who is legitimated by both God and Moses. I don’t see here that ‘women matter to God’ (p.109).
For Helen ‘The Bible can be made to say just about anything, if it is taken out of context’ (p.17). She attributes harmful readings to misinterpretation and misapplication of the Bible (p.26) and goes on to describe and detoxify widely applied texts from Paul in the light of their original setting (p.34). I consider the original context irretrievable and worry about the Bible’s impact in the present. I find the sheer range of the Bible’s contents and its possibilities for both healing and harm particularly disturbing and at the heart and centre of its enduring power and influence. I am wary of deeming this or that interpretation either ‘valid’ or ‘misapplied’: who is to say?
Helen does admit to the interpretation of the Bible being difficult. When she discusses passages of the New Testament, I have to confess to being out of my depth. Helen, too, however, who has studied these texts carefully, says, of 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, for instance, that there are ‘many opinions’ on this passage (p.44) and of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that she ‘can’t give you a definite answer… there is enough ambiguity about the interpretation of these verses that it is frankly dangerous to pin a whole theology of gender roles on to them’ (p.64). Ambiguity is also admitted elsewhere (p.66), including of the passage on divorce in Malachi (p.72). I think it is great that Helen admits to the difficulty and ambiguity of the Bible and I, again, much prefer this to the interpretations of those who make strong claims and then apply these to exerting dominance and control. But an ambiguous passage does leave a door open for multiple interpretations, including harmful ones. That, I think, is why the Bible can be so harmful.
Helen argues of Ephesians 5:22 (‘wives, submit to your own husbands…’) that this applies only to husbands who are like the Lord – who is elsewhere characterised as gentle, kind to women, ‘non-toxic’ (p.113) – and of Malachi, that ‘God does appear to hate divorce, because he cares about the protection of vulnerable women and their children’ (p.70). Sometimes that just sounds too casuistic to me, while the biblical text sounds far less benign.
I suppose, what I’d like to have seen more in this book is a cry of ‘So What If the Bible Tells Me So?!’ – a cry of outrage and protest. Instead of just admitting to ambiguity, I’d like to have seen more of ‘if people use the text in this way, they are wrong – because abuse and exploitation are wrong.’ Helen says, ‘I take the responsibility of the interpretation of the Bible very seriously. I do not believe that we can twist it and bend it to suit our purpose. Nor can we throw out the bits we don’t like’ (p.23). I disagree. First, I think we probably all – consciously or not – twist and bend the Bible. And secondly, I would say some bits of the Bible ought to be thrown out. Passages where rapists are compelled to marry the women they have raped (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), or the ‘clobber texts’ (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) used against any man who in any circumstance has sexual relations with another male and – by extension – against all homosexuals and anyone genderqueer are passages I have no hesitation in calling wrong. I am not chopping them out of the Bible but if and when I teach about them, I do point to their harmful ideologies and the consequences on real lives. I guess I prefer the Jesus Helen describes who also rejects Scripture when it is harmful (pp.120-21), the Jesus depicted as sympathetic to the woman who breaks the law of Leviticus and touches him while suffering a discharge.
I like this book and I will readily recommend it and recommend it widely. I accept that it is not really aimed at me. It is aimed particularly at women in urgent situations. And in such urgent situations, women don’t need biblical scholarship and textual quibbling: they need support and help. Helen’s book provides spiritual support and gives practical advice for finding help. It also offers clear-cut suggestions for making church communities safer, better informed and more hospitable places.
This book is part of a growing body of resources targeting reform of churches from within. I hope it is widely read and widely used. Much good will come of it if it is.
You can order your copy here.
- Helen is well aware that women can be abusers and that victims can be of multiple genders. She herself draws attention to her use of gendered language and follows this up with a justification: ‘In the UK, cis and trans men and women are subjected to domestic abuse. Abuse is perpetrated in heterosexual and gay and lesbian relationships. I understand this. Nonetheless, the vast majority of abusers are male, and the vast majority of people who report abuse are female’ (p.21).
- There has been a full debate about the ‘pornoprophetics’ of these passages. Their violent potential, including for actual women, has been explored by, among others, T. D. Setel, ‘Prophets and Pornography: Female Sexual Imagery in Hosea’ (in L. M. Russell, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible,Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985, 86-95) and Renita Weems, in Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1995).