When women talk to each other
The participation of women in Hollywood movies is sometimes measured by the Bechdel test. The test is named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel who framed its three key questions in an ironic comic strip in 1985. Does the movie have at least two women in it? Do they talk to each other? And do they talk about anything other than a man?
Even though films that pass the Bechdel test tend to make more money, over 30% of all Hollywood movies continue to fail the test each year. This is rarely mentioned in reviews, and rarely noticed by most cinema goers – presumably because we are simply so used to it. And sadly what is true on a Saturday night at the movies is even more true on a Sunday morning at church. The books of Bible rate far lower than Hollywood on the Bechdel scale. Just 2 out of 66 (3%) feature an extended conversation between two women. Yet these conversations in the Book of Ruth and Luke’s gospel offer an incredible range of theological insights. If only there were more conversations like this.
The friendship between Ruth and Naomi offers an inspiring example of commitment: ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God’ (Ruth 1.16). Ruth’s words echo the covenant promises that God made to Moses back in Exodus 6.7, and these promises continue to be fulfilled as Ruth and Naomi live out their commitment to each other and to God. Crucially, they safeguard the line of David, Ruth’s great-grandson, thus setting in train the next phase of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. When these two women talk together, they not only echo the promises of God; they actively help them come to pass.
Unlike Matthew, Luke names Boaz rather than Ruth in his genealogy of Jesus (Luke 4.32), but when it comes to the narratives of Jesus’ birth, the two evangelists effectively swap positions. Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s point of view, while Luke focuses instead on Mary. Mary’s response to Gabriel is a remarkable example of faith and obedience, and it is easy to understand how the annunciation has become such a focal point in our art galleries and carol services – yet it is the conversation between Mary and Elizabeth that reveals far more about the significance of Jesus’ birth.
The story begins with a dramatic moment of recognition as both Elizabeth and the child within her respond to Mary’s pregnancy. Elizabeth cries out, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’ (Luke 1.42). The unqualified wife of a priest blesses a woman who has scandalously conceived a child out of wedlock. It is the first of many ironic celebrations in Luke’s gospel that the messianic promises of the scriptures are being fulfilled in surprising ways. Elizabeth then speaks prophetically, naming Mary as ‘the mother of my Lord,’ and proclaims a second blessing (this time using the Beatitude word makaria), ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
This theme of fulfilment dominates the rest of their encounter. Some early Latin versions of Luke’s gospel show Elizabeth rather than Mary speaking the words we know as the Magnificat. In a way it makes sense. The Magnificat echoes Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2, and it is Elizabeth’s story that most closely resembles Hannah’s. Yet most texts attribute it to Mary. Is it too fanciful to imagine that they worked on the song together? When expectant mothers talk, they inevitably dream about their children, and about the world into which they will be born. Yet the dream that Mary and Elizabeth discover through their conversation is exceptional, in that it is not really about their own children at all – it is about the kingdom of God that they have sensed coming into being through everything that has happened to them. Scaling up their own experience, they foresee a world turned upside down, where the humble are exalted and the mighty brought low; where the hungry are fed and the rich sent empty away. This is the kingdom that their sons would eventually proclaim and enact. How much was their vision shaped by what their mothers discovered together in this conversation? We can never know, but this is exactly the kind of vision that can emerge when women talk to each other about their experiences of life and of God, and their dreams of a better world. If only there were more conversations like this.
Revd Anne Stevens, Vicar, St Pancras Church & Vice Chair of WATCH