Feminism, Theology

finding new meaning in familiar characters

I’m working on another Redeeming Love post, but I took an actual break this weekend so I have to make sure all my seminary reading is completed by tomorrow. Hopefully you’ll see another review post on Wednesday, but no firm promises.

Today I’m posting a reflection paper I wrote for my “Interpretation as Resistance” class, in response to this prompt regarding readings on Ruth, Sarah & Hagar:

Choose one of the perspectives that differs from your own. What did you learn from that writer? How does that perspective on Gen 16 and 21 challenge, expand, sharpen your interpretation of those stories?

I’ll be referencing two chapters we read. Donaldson’s piece looks at Orpah from a Native American point of view, and argues that Orpah’s decision is an analog to the decision by Native Americans to preserve their culture and identity in the face of white colonialism– that Orpah is the brave hero in this situation, not Ruth. She challenges the accepted narrative that Ruth was the brave one for leaving her homeland and religion. Similarly, Williams explicates the ways the African American community has pointed to Hagar as a symbol and touchstone. Both were incredibly powerful readings.


Before I came to United for seminary, I completed the program for a master’s degree in English at Liberty University. I learned a lot there, but one thing that this class has already shown me is that I’m used to reading books the way the book tells me it wants to be read. I can’t think of a time previous to this class when that interpretive assumption was challenged: I almost always agreed with whatever text I was reading about who the “bad guys” and “good guys” were of every story. If there wasn’t a clear protagonist/antagonist relationship like that in the book, there were almost always clues about who I as the reader was supposed to identify with, or who I was supposed to “cheer on” as I read.

Sometimes a story takes advantage of that assumption, and subverts it. House of Cards, while not a book, is an engaging story that pulls the viewer into the internal world of Frank Underwood but instead of making the villainous character the “hero of his own story,” the show unabashedly admits that their main character is the villain. It’s a challenging point of view that is occasionally disturbing—how could I want Frank Underwood to win? And yet, sometimes, I’m delighted when he does. However, in the end, I’m still being told by the scriptwriters how I’m supposed to respond to their characters.

Reading two perspectives over the past few weeks highlighted this assumption for me: Laura Donaldson’s “Sign of Orpah” and Delores Williams’ “Hagar in African American Biblical Appropriation.” I’ve read the story of Ruth many times, and each time had a reaction much more like Celena Duncan’s in Take Back the World. I adore Ruth and what she’s come to mean to me over my life—Orpah, to me, was barely anything more than a narrative foil. Donaldson’s response to Orpah was amazing to me, and while I loved seeing such a beloved narrative in a completely new light I am still investigating why it never would have occurred to me to see Orpah as really a character in her own right and what she might mean to others. The text dismisses Orpah, so that’s what I did, too.

A similar thing was happening in my reception of Sarah and Hagar, as well. My mother has always identified very strongly with Hagar and her name for God as “the God who Sees Me,” as my mother puts it … but I never really felt that pull. Later in my life it was just a painful reminder that God most definitely does not see me, or if They do, doesn’t much care. I preferred Sarah and her pragmatic—even cynical—and sardonic reaction to God’s promises. I sympathized with Hagar and found much beauty in her side of the story, and always saw those two in tension with one another. There wasn’t a clear “bad guy” in the text, but there is still a narrative preference. Sarah is Abraham’s wife, the matriarch of Israel, and Hagar was just sort of an unfortunate blimp in their story, a mistake. A mistake God took care of, but still a mistake. I was much more like the rabbis trying to work out a way for Sarah to be the “good guy” more than I was listening to Hagar’s own story.

Williams showed me how that approach reveals a rather glaring bias I have. I haven’t been required much by the circumstances of my life to peer into the Bible and claim stories that other, more powerful, people have rejected. My queer point of view has given me the opportunity to see some characters much differently than others—like my conviction that Ruth is definitely bi—but I haven’t been required to think outside of the box in different ways. I’m thankful to Donaldson and Williams for helping me get outside my own head.

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  • Faye

    Even though I gave up on the inerrancy/authorial intent approach years ago, it’s so hard to look at the Bible in other ways. I know it’s a story, and that stories are full of ambiguity, but I already have the correct interpretations fixed in my head. It’s like one of those optical illusions where there are two pictures at once. I’ve spent so long seeing a tree that I can’t see a face.

    • Shaina

      I know what you mean! I think that a lot of the “angry atheists” present around the blogosphere are the same way. They grew up thinking that Biblical interpretation was black/white, a text to be literally interpreted always and forever. So now they rail on progressive Christians with more open interpretations for “shoehorning” modern values to an ancient work or “cherrypicking,” as though the way they see the Bible is the only correct way.

      • Melody

        I suppose I could consider myself such an “angry atheist” and I more or less agree with your analysis. It does depend on one’s view of the Bible, or one’s past view. I did think the Bible contained all the answers and was the end all, be all about God. Now I think God does not exist at all.

        Seeing the Bible through a progressive lense and believing that multiple interpretations are possible, are maybe even advisible or preferable, is something that does not appeal to everyone. I like literary analysis, and now that I no longer believe the Bible is divinely inspired, different interpretations no longer bother me. I view the Bible as I would any other book. Ambiguity is interesting in a text; too much ambiguity can be distatisfactory, though. When you take “the author is dead approach”, a text can be open for any interpretation.

        When I was a fundie Christian that was not possible at all. Multiple interpretations would either be blasphemy, or would, at the very least, mean that God was not clear in his message – and so would be criticism of God (I did have some criticism towards God/Jesus and that was definitely not allowed.)

        As someone who likes literary analysis, I like looking at Bible stories from a different perspective. It’s one of the reasons I sometimes read progressive blogs. As a former fundie and an atheist, I do hold that a God that somehow inspires a book that is open to so many different interpretations, at the very least is not a very clear or knowable – as in approachable and understandable – God. It sounds more like a trickster God to me who enjoys or likes confusion, which then leads me to ask to what end?

        As a former believer, that last thing I wanted to add is that, at least in my case, that is where the angry part comes from. The feeling that one is betrayed – by a God that does not exist, by a religion that is no longer, to me, valid. And by the Bible as well, or by Bible explanations and interpretations.

        “They grew up thinking that Biblical interpretation was black/white, a text to be literally interpreted always and forever.”

        Exactly. So when it turns out that such is not true, why should any other interpretation be true? And if several more interpretations are all possible and all equally valid or not valid, that is interesting to analyze, but it’s hardly something to rebuild a crumbled faith upon. So for me personally, that was not possible.

        To have faith in something I need it to be true, the truth – if or when it is not, then I don’t see the point of believing in it. I see the point of looking at stories from a different perspective and finding all kinds of possible and interesting meanings to them, because it deepens a story and gives extra layers to it, but for faith I need something more. I need it to be true and real, otherwise what’s the point? I think that’s where former fundies who become either progressives or atheists differ: in what faith means or meant to them and what it should provide. A difference in how much someone is able to live with ambiguity in their faith.

        TLDR: Interpretation is fun, however, I personally wouldn’t and couldn’t build a faith on something that is so ambigious that a multitude of interpretations is possible and that is why I became an atheist instead of a progressive.

        • Shaina

          I don’t have much to add to your points, but I’d just like to say that I consider myself to be an angry atheist much of the time also, and I understand that the anger of atheists often comes from feelings of betrayal and hurt. I hope my comment didn’t alienate any other atheists.

          • Melody

            🙂 I just wanted to clarify why the angry atheists may be angry in my comment; I wasn’t personally offended or anything, to clear that up.

        • Faye

          I think I could’ve become an atheist if I weren’t so drawn to mysticism. I’m a bit torn between the part of my brain that wants to have answers and certainty, and the part that just wants to get lost in the unknown. Maybe it’s not rational, but I believe, or want to believe, there’s something beyond the physical world.

          I’d probably be fine if it weren’t for the voice that keeps saying “Get it right or you’ll go to hell.” And it’s a shame, because there’s so much rich symbolism and ritual in Christianity. I don’t want to leave that. But when so many people say someone like me isn’t welcome, it’s draining. I shouldn’t have to fight for a place in my own tradition.

          • Melody

            You shouldn’t have to fight for your place. There should be room for everyone.

            The hell voice still bothers me too sometimes, fortunately it generally doesn’t last long, but it can be bugging and scary.

          • Elena Johnson

            Faye, your story reminds me of Mike McHargue’s (author of Finding God in the Waves) approach to faith and science. He also co-hosts The Liturgists Podcast. If you aren’t already aware of his work, you might find it companionable.

        • That everyone has their own story with their own motivations and emotions is reality, though. Do you believe in reality?

          And seeing as actual humans are themselves so ambiguous, can you ever really know another human?

          I say this because I travelled in the opposite direction (atheist to believer). We know the people we love through the stories they live and tell us about themselves. I can’t imagine how else God would show and tell us Who They are than through story.

          Anyone in the world could be lying, evidence can be manufactured … so if you believe what someone tells you about themselves, ultimately that is an act of faith.

          • Melody

            I would apply different rules to a God than to a human being though. Besides I know human beings are real, are a reality, a god or gods, on the other hand…

            It has to do with the differences between a God and humans. Ambiguity in humans I consider to be normal, but in a God that is supposedly perfect and all powerful, it does not feel right.

            I agree it’s an act of faith. For a long time, I gave God (the one I knew, which already may be a different one than the one you know, which is where the ambiguity begins already,) the benefit of the doubt, until I didn’t. I wanted God to live up to the expectations, and God did not. And then I realized that had happened before but I had closed my eyes to it, because I wanted to hang unto my faith. I thought I needed God and I loved God and I was loved by God, but then it crumbled. God did not help me (again) and I began to realize that maybe God wasn’t there in the first place. I noticed that all those things that God supposedly did and had done were not really all that evident and I became more critical. I started to test God to see if God was real, and nothing happened. Not one thing, which I took as an answer to my questions.

            Leaving God caused me a bit of heartbreak, but believing in God had begun to cost me more.

            There are heaps of gods to pick and choose from. I could have gone to a different religion – and quite a few people do – but if a god or gods were real, we would know it. We – none of us – would need to believe in them to be real, we would know they were real because every day would convince us of such. To me, reality does not.

          • What rules would you apply to a god?

            God hasn’t lived up to my expectations, either … thankfully.

            But … why does your not knowing God take precedence over billions of people claiming they do know God, though? It’s like going camping with a whole bunch of people and they all experience something amazing in the forest while you’re taking a nap … and then you say they’re all clinging to something they imagined or (in the case of Israel, who met God as a nation) mass hallucinated … you weren’t there, so why would you be the authority on what happened?

            As to why there are different beliefs and understandings of God … everyone brings their own baggage. It’s like in those court procedurals – eye witnesses tell different versions of the same event. That there are differences in their testimonies doesn’t make the event they experienced fictitious.

            It’s fair that you’re not convinced! I’m not convinced about many things I didn’t eye witness myself. Looking for the truth is always legit, wherever it takes you.

            I know my mother was real but I’m not convinced of this everyday … I know Trump is technically president of the USA but I don’t believe it. No matter how many updates we get on President Donald Trump, I’m just like nah. That’s not real. I’ve never seen him in real life, anyway. Dude could be computer generated. 😉

          • Melody

            If they are an authority on their lives, I also am on my own.

            I don’t think they mass hallucinated. I think a story was written with some – OK a lot of – embellishments to build a history where a God guided and helped them as a people, but also punished them quite a lot too. A story to build a narrative to bind people together with a common history and God. Much like we use history and religion these days, to create a group. To divide people into in and out, like any ideology does.

            The different testimonies happens all the time; it shows that we are not always the best at memorizing things exactly as they happened. We do take our own bagage with us. Still, the differences should be in the details and not the larger picture, otherwise someone would be simply wrong. If the car was black and they remember it as white, they were wrong about it.

            People can imagine all sorts of things. I believed God was with me and guided me for over twenty years and I saw signs of his love and care everywhere. I have no trouble in people believing they feel or sense God; I did so for the longest time too.

            And now I do take the doubting Thomas approach: I have to see it to believe it. Myself, personally. Otherwise it’s just stories told by people, and of course (most of) these people are sincere, I don’t doubt that at all. I guess what happened is that I started to believe in proof, rather than in stories, no matter how lovely or appealing.

            I do love stories, by the way, but I no longer take them to be factual. Perhaps they have a sound message, perhaps they don’t, but a story is a story and a fact is a fact. Even in this post-fact era we seem to occupy at the moment.

  • bricksandtreehouses

    Thanks! I’m really curious as to the title of the chapters/ book. I realize this isn’t the point of your post, but I’d like to find out what connection Donaldson makes between Orpah and the oppression, genocide or cultural attacks against Native Americans. In the story, Orpah wasn’t forced to leave her homeland as Native Americans were and her choice to not leave was respected by Naomi. And she didn’t physically attack Orpah, whether she was happy with Orpah’s decision or not. Naomi actually encouraged both Ruth and Orpah to stay with their families and… blessed (?) them in doing that. And Naomi and Orpah are presented as sharing some of the same ancestors (Abraham/Lot/Moab) – neither of them were white. I’m a bit familiar with literary analysis, but I’m wondering how these discontinuities would be addressed. I haven’t read any Jewish oral tradition surrounding the story, so I’m missing that background.

  • I also never thought about Orpah when I read the story of Ruth. Really interesting to hear about how people have found meaning in her part of the story. Feels a lot like the world of headcanons and fan fiction- where we get so deep in a story we find things the author didn’t really intend to say, but that’s not a bad thing. Like the story takes on a life of its own. 🙂

  • Ysolde

    I lik Judith, which is technically Aprocrypha, but I still like her and her story. If anything though I want to kno wmore about her maid. Who was this kick ass servant who went with her queen, helped her get made up and oild down for Holofernes, and then watched for the guards while Judith cut his head off.
    Sure Jidith was awesome, but her maid was also totally awesome as well.

  • Lisa Cox

    Hello – wow – I love your work so far, but it is disturbing to know that you got a freaking master’s degree in English and still read texts that way. I only have a BA in English and they slapped that out of me in my first upper level course – English 301 HELLO – never read a text as a morality play with good and evil characters unless it actually is a morality play (Scarlet Letter anyone) and even then wring all the morality out of it before you feel you know anything about it. Morality is a social construct that was different in Shakespeare’s time, different in Nietzsche’s time, different in Victor Hugo’s time, different in Walt Whitman’s time, so if you try and and read a text and decide you know who is good and evil by a wink and nod from the the author- then you will miss the meaning by a blooming mile. How you got through an English degree without knowing how to pulverize a text, dissect it, unhinge it, unglue it word by word and then analyze it again is beyond me. You seem to do a pretty good job of that in your reviews, but it if they didn’t explicitly teach you that then you are owed a refund. Wow – so the moral of this story is don’t get English degrees from Liberty University – but I’m probably reading too much into that? Good luck with your future coursework – I hope you aren’t too burdened by your time at Liberty University.

    • The moral of the story is definitely “don’t get English degrees from Liberty or Pensacola Christian College.”