Saturday Book Review: Teresa Berger

This review comes to us from one of our students at Northern Seminary, Jean Sharp. Book Review of Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History: Lifting a Veil on Liturgy’s Past, Teresa Berger

In an overly sexualized North American context, it seems quite remarkable that our gendered-bodies could be overlooked. And yet, the disconnection, whether in theology, media, or liturgical historiography, is very present, as Teresa Berger points out in her recent publication: Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History. Her conclusion is, however, that such recognition has been missing not only from today, but also from the chronicling of our yesterdays. In uncovering, or “lifting the veil”, on the ways in which the church has historically always gendered liturgical practices, we can afford the eyes to see and appropriate more theologically integrated gendered lives. To accomplish such a task, Berger separates the book into three main parts: methodology and presuppositions, (four) case studies, and implications.

Methodologically, she draws and expounds on much of her previous work in Women’s studies. She utilizes extra-textual sources, offers potential for arguments from silence, and revisits old sources to submit new interpretations. The book records the historical trajectories of gender studies and its intersection with liturgical historiography, claiming to advance previous “add-gender-and-stir” methods to “historize, not essentialize, gender differences as these mark liturgy.”[1]

Her methodological task seems like the larger contribution to the study of gender attentive liturgical history. For the book itself, despite its case studies, seems to merely dabble in the depth and rich discussions available in each example. Simply her redefinition of gender beyond the “oppositional binary” of men and women, allow readers the capacity of imagination to recognize the “complex ways in which liturgy has always been shaped by changing gender constructions”.[2] Her demonstration of this methodology through the case studies, then, is the necessity of the tool, not necessarily radical discoveries of conclusions.

However, her cases studies are nevertheless revelatory. Her first case study offers a look at sacred space. Mediated through “porous” places and ways of practice, rather than the traditional dichotomy of public and private, she settles on “household” as an encompassing separate and the most formative religious space in opposition to public square and public ecclesial space, where gendered ritual was more rigidly and hierarchically coded. Berger opens the possibility that space was not only gendered within the confines of the church walls (where seating, proximity, and attendance limitations were present), but liturgically appropriated to different hierarchy of groups outside the church as well. Rituals of burial, clothing, day-to-day customs, relics, and leadership of house-churches are explored as thoroughly gender coded. She brings up the gender-specific regulations and separations of sanctuaries, and points out that conversely– women’s monastic spaces generally did not have restrictions on men.[3]

The second case study deals with Eucharistic imaging of gender—bread production, nursing, and consecrating as gendered tasks. Specifically, she explores breast milk as image of God nourishing humanity through the Eucharist of Christ’s body. There is plenty of textual evidence for these interpretations, including biblical precedent. However, the images themselves are recessively used in liturgical language. Exploring the integration of image and gendering, she makes an interesting divergence, which sets the stage for the next case study, whereby she distinguishes breastfeeding from a ‘female’-act, to a ‘maternal’ or ‘nourishing’ act. Gendered identity is here correctly attributed to “maternal”, as all females will not participate in this act.[4] However, while the metaphor can certainly draw on the nourishing act of the God/Mary/priest in nursing, the distinction that nursing can be separated from the maternal gendered identity is counter-intuitive to her argument. While nursing does not have to be “starkly female”, it must be female in some sense—for it cannot be void of its female identity, even in its mere description of “maternal” identity. This play between categories is precisely the discussions and complexities Berger is trying to draw out. She points out that humanity is never disembodied, whether the body is that of the bread of life, or the body approaching the table.

In the third case study, Berger explores bodily flows, finally crossing the boundaries of her gender study through women’s issues, and exploring the complex gender identities she speaks of throughout the book. She brings to light the controversial discussions of church fathers over bodily flows—menstrual, lochial, nocturnal-emissions, and post-coital. Each referring to differing gendered categories of people, she investigates how ritual impurity is debated and viewed in each case. At various points throughout history and cultures, Berger shows how the debates sometimes use the same texts to support opposite conclusions, or how theological decisions were made, but not necessarily enforced. A discussion otherwise hidden from the church, the ambiguity of sinfulness, ritual uncleanliness, and holiness of priest, presider, lay, or ascetic, is brought to the light. This seems to culminate the beauty of Berger’s methodology—it may not provide answers for a “right” history, or even a “right” theology, but instead it opens otherwise closed eyes to the way gender has inherently been participative in the narrative of liturgical history. Gender here has prohibitions tied to (sometimes) its very nature.

In the final case study of Liturgical Presidency, Berger explores how the development of leadership in the church has and has not been tied to gender. Sequentially, she describes the structuring of leadership first through the Spirit-inspired gifts, then the household host or patron, and finally through the “selecting and authorizing appropriate leadership for the community”.[5] The third option is most potently developed as a particularized understanding of maleness. This, in part, would contribute to the development of the priesthood. Marital continence and Eunuchs are furthermore developed as gendered identities tied with the liturgical presidency. The section distinguishing the variety by which one would become a Eunuch, and the role that change had to play in limiting or expounding the possibilities of leadership and liturgical participation is very clarifying and helpful. And finally, Berger expounds on the development of the particular version of masculinity of priests, as it interacted with female imagery. Again, the case studies seem to open up multiple conversations at once, leaving the reader wishing Berger took time to delve into each issue on its own.

The final part of the book allows Berger to push into the life and culture of the histories she uncovers, and modern implications by asking the reader to continue to where she left off. What are the theological implications of gendering liturgy? How is active participation measured when voices are gendered, and therefore categorized? Overall, Berger begins by playing to her wheelhouse of women’s studies. She leaves, however, with a strong methodological ethic of seeking gender differences in liturgical history. On a basic level, Berger has asked her readers to dethrone tidy boxes of assumptive and generalized categories of gender when looking at history and liturgy. She asks to replace the stereotype with the multifaceted. She asks to honor our gendered bodies, “not least because the story [liturgical history] seeks to tell is at heart a story of human beings who gather in worship before God, and these human beings come, always and only, embodied – and that means living within some version of a gendering process.”[6]



[1] Teresa Berger, Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History: Lifting a Veil on Liturgy’s Past (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2011), 23, 31.

[2] Ibid, 33.

[3] Ibid, 65.

[4] Ibid, 85-6.

[5] Ibid, 130.

[6] Ibid, 29.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Westcoastlife

    “…she describes the structuring of leadership first through the Spirit-inspired gifts, then the household host or patron, and finally through the “selecting and authorizing appropriate leadership for the community”

    It sounds like a lot of the gender conflicts we are observing today – who should lead? Pentecostal types – chosen by gifting, neo-cals – chosen by family role husbands/fathers, traditional (Catholic, for example) – chosen by top authorities (vatican) as the correct leader: priests, bishops.

    Each group can point to the early church and bible to back up their positions.

    Val (Disqus is annoying me, so I won’t keep changing my handle)


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