Book Review: The Gospel According to Woman by Karen Armstrong

This book is wonderful. Since learning about Karen Armstrong in college, I’ve been slowly chipping away at her work. She gives the best history lessons–she’s the closest I’ll ever get to catholic school, probs.

In a lot of ways, she is an old voice that sounds new–a voice that knows how to speak to modernity by understanding old thoughts. Reading this book could not have been more timely for me–what with the transgender bathroom ban panic taking my country, and the conservative right bemoaning gay marriage. This work reminded me of all that women have endured under Christian culture…and how wildly Christianity has been twisted into something it originally was not.

Coolest ex-nun evah!

Here I will paste my favorite quote from the book–the quote that was most relevant to me–a quote about original Christian marriage and ancient Christian thought on breeding:

“The Fathers view sex very differently from Paul and this colours the way that they interpret his view about marriage – a view which would hitherto be seen through their eyes in the West. Marriage must be an evil and should, therefore, be avoided. It might be objected that the Fathers could not have wished marriage to die out because this would mean that the human race could not continue. That was no problem to the Fathers for procreation was by no means seen as a Christian duty. ‘Leave that to the pagans,’ Tertullian said tersely. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, a great admirer of Tertullian, said that the first commandment given to men was indeed to increase and multiply, but now that the earth was full there was no need to continue frenetically this process of multiplication. Augustine was clear that if everybody stopped marrying and having children that would be an admirable thing: it would mean that the Kingdom of God would return all the sooner and the world would come to an end. By continuing to propagate the human race we were simply holding up Christ’s glorious return.

This negative view of marriage was reflected in the complete lack of interest shown by the Church authorities. For one thing no special ceremonial was devised to celebrate Christian marriage. The Church very quickly produced its own liturgy of Eucharist, Baptism and Confirmation but nothing was done about marriage. It was not important for a couple to have their nuptial blessed by a priest. People could marry by mutual agreement in the presence of witnesses; they could have sex at once and there was no need to wait for the Church’s blessing. This system, known as Spousals, persisted after the Reformation and endured well into the 18th century. Very often the couple married in the church porch. Thus Chaucer’s Wife of Bath tells the Canterbury pilgrims that she had five husbands ‘at the Church door’. Augustine and Aquinas may have said that marriage was a sacrament, but no ceremonial was devised to celebrate this sacrament. At first the old Roman pagan rite was used by Christians. Clearly it had to be modified, but the modifications were purely superficial: the Holy Spirit and Christ were substituted for the names of pagan gods. Thus there was no special Christian marriage service for centuries. The first detailed account of Christian wedding in the West dates from the 9th century and it was identical to the old nuptial service of Ancient Rome. For all the insistence of the Scholastics that Christian marriage was something essentially different from marriage between pagans, this sacrament had to wait centuries before receiving Christian baptism.

The wedding is now so firmly entrenched in our Western consciousness that it is difficult for us to realize how very new the wedding mythology really is. A young girl is taught, traditionally, to look forward to her wedding as the high point of her life. Clad in virginal white, she will float down the aisle to pledge her life to her husband….Yet this coupling of love and marriage is relatively new. From the time of the Troubadours love was seen to be quite independent of marriage and in the 12th century a very famous pair of lovers felt that marriage would inevitably destroy their love [Abelard and Heloise].

…Heloise was not pulling out of the love affair. What will pull Abelard forever into this irretrievable and shameless impurity is not the sin of fornication but legalizing the sin by marriage. By publicially setting himself up aas a married man, Abelard was telling th ewalrd that he was having sex. The final arguments Heloise uses against marriage sound surprisingly modern:

Heloise…argued that the name of mistress instead of wife would be dearer to her and more honourable for me – only love freely given should keep me for her, not ht econstriction of a marriage tie…

Heloise’s fears were totally justified. Abelard also knew that a marriage could only harm his career and when he offered to marry Heloise he insited that ‘the marriage should be kept secret so as not to damage my reputation.’” –Karen Armstrong, The Gospel According to Woman, pp. 263-264, 269-270.

Read this book!


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