The Gender of “Church” in the BoM

I still have a “church” itch as the idea is found in the BoM. So below, in no particular order, are some observations and thoughts as they stand now:

Gendered imagery in the Bible illustrating the relationship between God (or Christ) and his people, represented by Israel, Jerusalem or the Church, is pretty common. In Revelation alone, there are multiple striking images such as the Cosmic Woman of Revelation 12, the Whore of Babylon (Revelation 17) or the “Bride, the wife of the Lamb” in Revelation 21.

The BoM is different. The GA Church is female, but of the naughty type and highly disfavored for it. Instead, the church/people of God is/are defined by what they think, that is, they share a set of beliefs with God. It’s a rational rather than an emotional relationship; right now it seems like two guys who’ve decided to hang out together. God is the dominant partner.

 

Love in the Bible can be quite passionate. It also expresses itself in a variety of forms: between genders, between men, and occasionally it even involves children. God’s love for his creation is so intense he’s said to be “jealous” in some translations, and Christ’s love for the church is the example for human marriage.

In contrast, the BoM seems a bit bloodless. Love of God might be mentioned most often, or perhaps love for one’s brethren. In any case, it is mostly platonic and impersonal; it works itself out in charity rather than sexuality. God’s love for the world is expressed in an allusion to John 3:16, but unless I missed something no love for the church is vocalized.

The BoM church has rights and privileges (Alma 2:4; 61:14; 3 Ne 2:12), which are a masculine prerogative. That’s quite a distance from the “feminine” vulnerability of the NT church. Or, if we were ever to establish the BoM church as feminine, we might say she’s a bit liberated.

There are three places where it strikes me that there’s something of a “feminine” feeling associated with the word “church:”

  • When Alma the Younger was being naughty, he was said to be “stealing away the hearts of the people” (Mos 27:9). With this in mind, when the angel shows up to check Alma’s behavior, it’s almost like one man warning another to stay away from his girl.
  • And then there’s Amalickiah, who, “because he was a man of cunning device and a man of many flattering words,…he led away the hearts of many people to do wickedly” (Alma 46:10).
  • When the post-resurrection church falls apart, the apostates are said to “build up churches unto themselves, and adorn them with all manner of precious things,” that is, the churches are “dressed” like women by their proud masculine owners (4 Ne 41).

So the church-as-a-woman is swayed from her true love by the pretty words of smart men, except when she’s a trophy wife of her human founders.   Gack!

I dunno. Maybe it’s just because I hang out with Catholics and they have a rich, if ambivalent, strand of tradition portraying the church as Holy Mother Church, but this is depressing. I hope somebody’s got some happier ideas about BoM ecclesiology than I do right now.

Mogs

  • Robert C.

    Interesting and provocative thoughts, Mogget — thanks.

    However, I don’t quite understand something. You write:

    So the church-as-a-woman is swayed from her true love by the pretty words of smart men, except when she’s a trophy wife of her human founders.

    It seems to me that the Church-as-woman is criticized for being either a trophy wife or seduced by masculine intellectualism. That seems to imply the Church-as-woman deserves praise only when it is not acting like, or aspiring to be, a trophy wife, or failing to think for itself. That is, it seems to me that the upshot of your argument is that the BoM is implicitly advocating the Church to be a strong, independently minded woman.

    But I think I’m misunderstanding you. Some help?

  • Clark

    Out of curiosity when we talk about whether an image is feminine or masculine which culture are we talking about? The 19th century?

    I just ask because I’m not convinced “stealing hearts” is a particularly feminine characteristic.

    Likewise the dressing up with precious items is in our culture more feminine but if the Book of Mormon was mesoAmerican would it be feminine there? Mosiah 11:9 suggests it a characteristic in the text of men. There are plenty of places where it is ambiguous (say Alma 4:6) but I’d argue that the fact women are just plain neglected in the Book of Mormon suggests it typically a characteristic of men in the text rather than women. Perhaps in the passages quoted from Isaiah or elsewhere that’s not true. And of course Nephi and company it’s a whole different ball game.

    That’s why Nephi and Lehi are more interesting since they are coming out of that 6th century Jewish context. But (here following Brant Gardner somewhat) I think we have to be cautious reading Jewish imagery back into the text too much. That’s not to deny that the translation clearly injects a lot of KJV imagery and quotations into the text and we might have imagery that makes the journey in that fashion.

    BTW – love you thinking through these issues though. It’s really got me thinking through it too – if only to suddenly notice for the first time that a lot of this traditional feminine imagery that was part of ancient Judaism as well as Joseph’s culture just isn’t that significant in the text. That in itself is kind of interesting in a way.
    The most significant feminine imagery in the book is the hen and chicken metaphor from 3 Ne 10. That’s interesting given the controversy over when chickens were introduced to the Americas. There was a pre-existing chicken culture in Peru when Europeans first visited there and chicken bones have been dated in Chile to around 1300 AD I believe. But it’s just as likely that we have largely injected text of the KJV with an unknown underlying text that may even have a different simile.

  • mogget

    Robert C.

    To me, it seems didactic focus is on the masculine figures who are portrayed as actively opposing God; the church is being feminine and passive in failing to resist, and is therefore worthy of censure. However, the focus is on the male-male relationship. What I am looking for is instances where the church-as-a-woman is doing something good, and is the focus, so she is portrayed as a nurturing mother, a loving wife, or a chaste bride-figure. Or something like that — could be female animal imagery, as well.

    Clark,

    Eh, the short answer to most of your questions is “I don’t know.” A longer answer follows:

    I got started on this because last week I was too sick to read anything serious so I laid around for a couple of days and read the BoM on my Kindle, marking the places where I “heard” the NT. Now I’m working back through them, doing a cursory examination of how the BoM used the NT, much as I might examine how the NT uses the OT.

    Right now, I’m mostly just thinking out loud, laying down some “markers” and looking for patterns, writing about little tidbits, etc., etc. I am not qualified to do jack-all with respect to historical or cultural matters in Central America, and not all that much better with the Jewish aspects. So I’m looking at modern responses, I guess, and at the moment mostly just at my own. To the extent that I have a warrant for this approach, I guess it’s the affirmation that the BoM was meant for modern readers.

    The hen-chick imagery is found in nearly identical form in the NT, so I’m not counting it as original BoM imagery. I did count the GA Church as an instance of original feminine BoM imagery because although it’s found in the NT, it’s applied to a BoM motif.

    As you say, the feminine imagery is very subdued, as is the sexuality, so calling this or that “feminine” is a dicey business. With respect to the “stealing of hearts,” since males are stealing the hearts, I am assuming a heteronormal relationship and making the church feminine. If the church is masculine, then one male is the stealing the heart of another male-figure, which should be reserved for a third male (God) and that has some different edges to it. Likewise, I am assuming that agents who adorned their churches were male, because the BoM does have many female characters, and the relationship heteronormal, so the church is feminine.

    As you say, it could be quite different, and I do not wish to be dogmatic about it. Anyway, thanks for the interest,

    Mogs

  • Robert C.

    Thanks for the additional thoughts, Mogget.

    Clark, interesting thought about the chicken-hen bit.

    Joe Spencer has written some interesting hypotheses about the Nephites having problematic relations with women, in general. I quite remember where, but perhaps it was in the series of posts he wrote at the FMH blog on Abish (maybe 6 months ago, or so). Anyway, if you’re thinking about gender issues in the BoM, those posts might be of interest (I can try to find them myself, if you can’t…).

  • Clark

    It seems to me that regardless of how we understand the imagery that the Nephites have an undeniable problem with women. Their silence in the text (presented only as characters who have things done to them rather than actors) is hugely problematic. I think that there’s an element of that towards the Lamanites (think how Jesus had to force them to even mention the Lamanite prophet) however the Lamanites have this odd double movement. On the one hand the Lamanites are the focus of the book on the other hand the Lamanites are continually marginalized in the book. The difference is that the women are just marginalized.

    I’d love to have some writings of how the women viewed everything and what is left out of the historical plates. (Maybe in the sealed portion one day…)

  • http://not-atamelion.blogspot.com Michael H.

    I think the question that has to be answered first is this: Is there a theological conception of a “church” in the Book of Mormon at all? In the NT, the Church is perceived as analogous to the people of Israel, for example, so it carries with it the OT theologies about God’s relationship with Israel. I’d argue that the Book of Mormon doesn’t have that sort of a reading; there isn’t too much sustained thought about what the church *is*, let alone how the church qua church relates to God. It seems to me that the church in the BoM is more an ad hoc confessional institution.

  • mogget

    It seems to me that the church in the BoM is more an ad hoc confessional institution.

    Yes, this is what it looks like to me, hence I wrote: “Instead, the church/people of God is/are defined by what they think, that is, they share a set of beliefs with God. It’s a rational rather than an emotional relationship; right now it seems like two guys who’ve decided to hang out together. God is the dominant partner.”

    I will look into your idea a bit more, though, because it seems like a fruitful approach. It seems like the “people of Nephi” have taken the “people of God” position with respect to a covenant relationship.

    Thanks again,

    Mogs


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