Bynum’s Appetite for Full Humanity
By R. Marie Griffith
In the world of scholarly books, Holy Feast and Holy Fast by Caroline Walker Bynum stands as my first and most enduring literary passion. It came into print at a time when I, then an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, was discovering my own desire for an academic vocation. My mentors in the history of Christianity (and in political thought) urged me to read the text for my senior thesis research, and it immediately became the book for me, a model of scrupulous concentration on specific detail and thick context, of brilliant historical analysis, of prose that is resplendent in its attentiveness to the subtleties of language. It is the book that animated my earliest academic forays (including that thesis, on Catherine of Siena), that got me going in the study of gender and religion even before I had personal mentors working in that area, and that has continued to inspire me. Truly, it is the book that changed my life.
Countless other scholars of religion and history in my cohort have felt similarly about Holy Feast and Holy Fast; indeed, lively friendships have formed among its admiring readers. Many of these are Europeanists, of course, but the path I followed led me into American religious history, where Bynum’s influence is also conspicuous. It is especially marked among the circles of historians and ethnographers who have embraced the “lived religion” model of studying religious people in the United States (from David Hall and Robert Orsi to Pamela Klassen, Karen McCarthy Brown, Courtney Bender, Rebecca Gould, Heather Curtis, and countless others). The lived religion approach emphasizes religious practice, improvisation, negotiation (between clergy and laity, for example), ambivalence (about freedom as well as authority, for instance), the family, embodiment and healing, gender, and other markers of the social; above all, this approach demands critical analysis leavened by empathy. This lived religion model shares much common ground with Bynum’s work, and I will focus on her impact upon my ways of thinking about gender and agency, female submission, bodily discipline, and religious debates about sex and morality.
My first book, God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (1997), focuses on American evangelical women’s notions of gender and power—in particular, evangelical women who passionately embrace the rhetoric of traditional femininity and the practice of female submission to male authority even while daily subverting both. The book elaborates a feminist framework for understanding conservative Christian women in the United States outside of certain other feminist premises that have seemed to me frustratingly reductive. Although I could not extensively utilize Bynum’s work in a book so far distant from her own temporal and geographic setting, I did cite her influence: “The work of distinguished feminist historians such as Natalie Zemon Davis and Caroline Walker Bynum has reminded those who interpret gender relations solely in terms of male ‘patriarchy’ and female ‘oppression’ that the realities are far more muddled, that women have always carved out spaces for themselves within the social, historical, cultural, and religious structures that constrain them and have resisted those structures in subtle and unexpected ways.”
However inadequately rendered, that statement highlights my interest in Bynum’s own important corrective to earlier feminist models. In her words (from Holy Feast and Holy Fast):
I have argued that medieval women are not best understood as creatures constrained and impelled by society’s notions of the female as inferior. Women’s piety was not, fundamentally, internalized dualism or misogyny. Although misogynist writing did certainly sometimes equate woman with sexual temptation and strong/weak, spirit/flesh, I consider it mistaken to take the ideas of male theologians and biographers about women as the notions of women about themselves.
Hence, the first significant use I made of Bynum’s analysis was its robust reworking of women’s piety—and really intensive, ecstatic yet abstemious, sacrificial, service-oriented piety—as something that, in function and meaning, was something more than simple self-loathing or fearful subservience to patriarchal expectations. Bynum’s humane insistence on the dignity and complexity of her subjects remains one of the key contributions of her work.
Some critics have taken God’s Daughters to task for allegedly promoting the idea that female submission leads to liberation; but what the book aims to show is the paradox of vulnerability recreating itself in the imaginations of these women (if not so seamlessly in the “real world”) as power, the fraught dialectic(s) of female submission and control. Not unlike Bynum’s analysis of medieval devotionalism, my reading discerned and scrutinized the hazards patriarchal religion posed for women, but my point was also to consider what my female subjects saw of its glorious promise, especially within a U.S. culture characterized by them as greedy, narcissistic, deeply selfish—a culture of male self-absorption and violence, in which serious moral intent and female agency remains subversive.
Her scholarship has been about women’s (and men’s) symbols and the paradoxes of particular bodily practices, animated by profound questions of life and death.
Although God’s Daughters does not focus only on embodiment, body is everywhere, for the women among whom I worked were consumed with food and weight, with body image, with sexual pleasure as well as with sin, and with rape. Sexual abuse turned out to be a chief concern of the Women’s Aglow group. Beauty, including slimness, was another. Control of the appetites (male and female) for sex, alcohol, and food was a decisive preoccupation. I devoted a section of God’s Daughters to the evangelical dieting culture in which my research subjects were embedded, but not until discovering the breadth and long historical trajectory of this culture in U.S. Protestantism did I appreciate that it merited a book-length treatment all its own.
That book grew to become Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity (2004). That book explores several distinctive and overlapping paradigms of embodiment within American Protestantism, from the late nineteenth century into the early twenty-first, and their discernible impact on U.S. culture. Its central question is how Christians in the United States have wrestled with competing prototypes of the body: the flesh as a conduit of grace and temple of the holy spirit, on the one hand; an unruly repository of sin, temptation, and defilement, on the other.
In the end, Born Again Bodies is significantly bleaker than God’s Daughters (or, for that matter, than Holy Feast and Holy Fast), for Born Again Bodies is more absorbed with the seemingly relentless power of our contemporary media culture to impose upon women severe ideals and regimens that do not appear to have the same nourishing symbolic power that Bynum’s medieval women could find in feasting on the Eucharist, fasting in order to fuse with the suffering Christ, cooking and serving food to others.
The work with which I am now engaged explores the Christian encounter with sexuality in several U.S. contexts, and here again Bynum’s influence remains palpable: her concentrated attention on body and gender, above all, but also to paradox and symbol, the nuances of physical celebration and renunciation, and the power shifts that are ever present and yet not always of preeminent import (questions other than power matter, too), and again her insistence on the complex humanity even of persons with whom we may deeply disagree. My aim in this project is to offer a compelling explanation for the religious obsession with sexuality in American history—a preoccupation that has variously included masturbation, premarital chastity, oral sex, homosexuality in all its forms, birth control, abortion, pornography, and much else besides.
The conflicts that suffuse my recent project are powerful precisely because they take up fundamental questions about notions of gender (in terms of women’s sexual freedom as well as the multiplicity of sexual identities), body, morality and what it means to be a moral person, and the impact of modernity and science (evolutionary biology, genetics, technology) upon our understandings of humanity. And this, again, takes me back to Bynum’s work—the full corpus of it, not only Holy Feast and Holy Fast; for throughout, her scholarship has never been about “the body” in a narrow sense, as many studies have been in her wake. Rather, it has been about women’s (and men’s) symbols and the paradoxes of particular bodily practices, animated by profound philosophical and theological questions about life and death—not mere flesh but our full humanity. Plainly, the themes and questions that have preoccupied me for the past 20 years are ones that have been most exquisitely raised by Bynum herself. Besides its formative influence on my thinking about religion, gender, and body in historical context, her scholarship has additionally served as an exemplar of disciplined attention to primary texts as well as their readers, to words as well as to communicative silences and slippages, above all to enfleshed women and men.
R. Marie Griffith is Professor of Religion and director of the program in the study of women and gender at Princeton University. She received her PhD from Harvard’s Committee on the Study of Religion in 1995 and was a Women’s Studies in Religion Program Research Associate in 2002–03. This piece was adapted from a paper prepared for an April 3, 2008, session on the impact of Caroline Walker Bynum’s book Holy Feast and Holy Fast during the conference “Gender and Religion,” held at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.