A Flip of the Script

A few days ago I came across the trailer for a mini-series on Amazon called Redbad, a harbinger of Europe’s (and perhaps ours as well) cultural moment. The movie involves the advancement of Christianity into a pagan land. The story proceeds from the pagans’ perspective. A few things immediately stand out:

  • The cross is associated not with sacrificial love, but with a ‘dark god’ who presumably loves punishment, an enormous ‘flip’ of its symbolic meaning for the last two millennia.
  • The series depicts Christians as intolerant bigots, the pagans as allowing something akin to freedom of conscience.
  • The Christians are usually filmed amidst darkness and smoke. Scenes with pagans alone seem to give them brighter light.

A few comments . . .

  • I would not say that Charlemagne allowed for freedom of conscience, but the idea that the pagans did . . . well–no one practiced this in the 8th century.
  • Charlemagne’s reign had plenty of messiness. But ‘messiness’ reigned in the West politically more or less since the time of Roman emperor Septimus Severus ca. 200 A.D. What historians should look for, as Will Durant suggested, was not how particular people shared in the vices of their time, but whether or not they swam against the current in any way with their virtues. With this standard, the cultural impact of the “Carolingian Renaissance” gleams brightly. As Kenneth Clark stated, paraphrasing Ruskin, “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their words, the book of their deeds, and the book of their art.” If we think, like Clark, that the last is the most trustworthy, Charlemagne’s reign comes off rather well.

A few examples:

  • The invention of a beautiful script (the Carolingian).
  • The creation of books, and the elevation of books as highly prized articles (studding the cover with jewels couldn’t make their value more obvious to their contemporaries).
  • Architectural innovations. Charlemagne put of the building talent of his empire not into palaces and castles, but the church at Aachen:

None of these things belong to pagan achievement.

One should not criticize Redbad for ‘historical inaccuracy’ per se. The medium of film works differently and tells stories differently. “Accuracy” is not my real concern. The mythos surrounding Charlemagne in the centuries after his death lacked “accuracy” in the strict sense of the word, just as any reporting or retelling of any event lacks “accuracy.” We edit and shape all the time, this is how our brain works as well as our souls. The problem with Redbad comes from the replacement of the standard Christian mythos entirely, and inventing another out of whole cloth, a perverse parody of creation ‘ex nihilo.’ As we see from the “book of their art,” the mythos surrounding Charlemagne has basis in fact.

Per Fexneld

When seeing a book titled, Satanic Feminism: Lucifer as the Liberator of Women in the 19th Century, one should proceed with caution. The book could be written by a crazy feminist, or a crazy anti-feminist. The book could hardly be a book at all, and instead a mere rant. But this book stands as a work of scholarship, carefully (mostly too carefully) written with extensive bibliography and footnotes. The author, Per Fexneld, teaches at the University of Stockholm and seems an ordinary professorial sort, with perhaps a small chip on his shoulder. Digging a bit further, you see that he intends not necessarily to praise or condemn with what he finds, but merely to put the facts before the dear reader. I will usually at least pick up books with bold titles like these, merely out of curiosity and admiration for the sense of dash the writer displays.*

I kept reading the book because Fexneld faithfully executes his task of providing copious information, albeit at arms length from the material. But his perspective seems trustworthy because of this distance. He clearly has no love for Christianity and has much sympathy with women of the 19th century. He never identifies as a “Satanist” himself but seems to value, or at least understand, the role the idea of Satan plays in transgressing norms for the sake of liberation as it relates to feminism.

A few things I did not like:

  • As an Orthodox Christian, naturally I would be sensitive as to how Fexneld uses ancient Christian sources. I found to my chagrin that when discussing them, he uses secondary sources rather than direct quotes from the primary texts. I sense that these secondary sources shaped his opinions of the early fathers, not reading the primary texts directly. Despite this, he treats early Christian commentators mostly with fairness, but he could have done much better than this for what aims to be a serious scholarly study. My sense is that he cherrypicked what early Christian witnesses said about women, and to his credit, he partially admits this at least one point.
  • Fexneld takes his place among the many (mostly European? it seems to me) “historians” that don’t write history at all, but reference books. He has good information, but writes with such obviously posed dry detachment that his style could light a fire on a wet day. Where are the Abbot Suger’s, the Thomas Carlyle’s? Alas, gone are the poet historians from the world.
  • The “reference book” feel means that he tries hard not let the reader in on how one should interpret his information. Should we denounce the “satanic” feminists? Should we praise them? Or should we merely observe and think nothing about these feminists, besides concluding that a=a?

But in the end I have to confess that he created an effective and interesting reference book. My frustration above stems from the fact that he has talent that he holds back through fear or misperceptions regarding his chosen profession. If you want to do research, well and good. If you want to write, at least make an attempt at poetry that seeks meaning and synthesis.

To the thrust of his work, then . . .

With copious notes and numerous examples, Fexneld amply shows a “Satanic” strain that ran through many early feminists. He distinguishes full blown “Satanists” (of which there were a few) from those that merely used Satanic tropes (the majority of his examples). With different particular manifestations, these women

  • Built upon Romantic ideas from Byron and Shelley that recast Satan as a tragic hero of the Biblical narrative. He attempted to bring knowledge and liberation, and so on.
  • Recast Eve as the mankind’s savior, of sorts, a figure akin to Prometheus. She boldly went where Adam refused to go and paid the price, but she gave mankind knowledge and self-awareness.
  • Thus, for these women, feminism represented a real social and theological revolution, not just icing on a semi-Christian foundation. They wanted an overthrow of the Christian narrative and the patriarchy which it established. To do so, it simultaneously exalted Eve, Satan, and the fall itself.

The multitude of examples is the strength of the book, but Fexneld throws them together in ‘one after another’ fashion. Worse, one cannot sense if any one example or group of examples accurately embodies or represents the whole. He very carefully hedges many of his statements. This caution has its place in parts, but not for the whole. When writing a book like this you have to actually say something. To mitigate this, the breadth of his treatment touches on

  • The rise of the occult in the period
  • The focus from the pre-Raphaelites on feminine figures from classical cultures, “strange” women, and even Lillith, Adam’s first wife in certain Jewish texts.
  • How popular literature and art veered into occult themes with the thinnest Christian veneer, with significant attacks on “Christian patriarchy” hidden below the surface.
  • The popularity of certain occult female writers like Mary McClane and Sylvia Townsend
  • The connection of feminist social inversion to sexual inversion (lesbianism).
  • The rise of women depicted as Satan (in a positive sense) or at least, womanly figures depicted as Satan.
  • The publication of The Woman’s Bible which inverted the basic biblical narrative, praising Eve, etc.

. . . and other things. One gets the sense of a tidal wave of either direct, or mostly indirect, Satanism flooding the feminist movement from 1880-1920. But the central question–was 1st wave feminism driven primarily by “Satanism” or not? I have the feeling Fexneld would recoil at the thought of the volumes of his research intended to answer that question one way or the other. No doubt he would see such a commitment as a grave faux pas.

Let us deal with this crucial question which Fexneld leaves untouched.

First, the feminist movement obviously challenged and successfully upended certain elements of society. Certainly Satan, among other things, sought to upend the order God established in creation. So perhaps feminist women found themselves naturally drawn to satanic symbols or Satan himself. But, not all orders should stay in place. Scripture has numerous examples of the established order needing “flipped” or inverted to attain proper wholeness again. David, the youngest son of Jesse and a shepherd, will overthrow Saul, the “demonic” king who consulted with witches. Herod, for example, rightly feared that Christ would give him a run for his money.

So, second . . . was the feminist movement a proper or improper inversion? I don’t think we should answer this question based on the rote numbers of “satanic” vs. non-satanic feminists. I think the question has its roots in the nature of the inversion. If the inversion was proper, then we can relegate the trends Fexneld observes to the fringe. If improper, then we can say that even the “good” feminists participated in something wrong.

This is a very tricky question, and I can see why Fexneld failed to tackle it. But how can we truly avoid it? I’m sure that Fexneld has an answer for this conundrum somewhere in his own mind, or at least I hope he has answered it. I cannot claim to know enough to answer it definitively. I will try a pass at it, however–why not?

I begin with the obvious statement that calling upon Satan in reality or in tropes, for any cause, will ultimately destroy you, just as the flood and chaos will destroy anyone.

Not surprisingly, the feminist movements occurred within democratic societies. One can see democracy itself as a kind of inversion against traditional monarchy, replacing a “top down” political order with one from the “bottom up.” Just like Saturn eating his children in a fruitless attempt to stop the slippery slope of revolution, so too the feminist movement seems like an inevitable byproduct of democracy itself–the revolt of “Earth” against “Heaven.” Feminist detractors could not prevent this ‘revolt’ even as they might praise and affirm a democratic way of life.

Were Victorian era women “oppressed” in some sense of the word? If we look at women’s fashion as a piece of evidence, we see that–whether or not women created/embraced these fashions, their movement, the way for them to show themselves to the world, was certainly restricted–especially if we accept Fexneld’s “proto-feminists” from the mid-19th century starting the modern feminist movement. This may shed light on their overall place in society. But the place of women in Victorian society is something which I know too little about to comment on.

I suspect that the “oppression” of women lacked the severity that some claimed, but disconnects from equality are hard to bear within a democracy. I withhold sympathy from many of Fexneld’s female examples, but would extend it to more moderate feminists.

The age old problem of revolutions has always been, however, where and when do they stop?

Obviously, I oppose the rebellion against Christianity that at least some feminists then and now espouse, on historical as well as religious grounds. I trust my religious objections are obvious. As to the historical, we can briefly consider Regine Pernoud’s Women in the Days of Cathedrals, which shows us an era where

  • The earliest medieval treatise on education was written by a woman
  • We see the invention of romantic love (at least as an accepted part of general society)
  • Women regularly practiced medicine
  • Women in monastic orders could get more or less the same education men in the church received

In short, the status of women at the height of medievalism–a patriarchal society in most respects–far surpassed that of any pagan society. Pernoud suggests, however, that the Renaissance and subsequent ages introduced more Roman and classical pagan concepts of property and ownership. Possibly this did have an impact on women’s status in the Renaissance and future centuries.

Of course, one cannot construct a society entirely of “Heaven” anymore than entirely out of “Earth.” Mankind itself is both “heavenly” and “earthly,” (just as mankind is not just men or just women) made from the dust of the earth and the spirit from above. Strikingly, many of the cathedrals in the “Age of Cathedrals” reference by Pernoud were dedicated to the Virgin Mary, including Chartes, Notre Dame, Burgos, and Cologne, just to name a few. Here, I am convinced, lies the heart of the matter Fexneld misses entirely. Yes, Christianity is obviously patriarchal. We pray to our Father in Heaven. But Christians made the “Woman” (John 2:24, 19:26) the representative of Creation itself. On the one hand, Mary flips the hierarchy. As a young girl, she resided in the Holy of Holies–unheard of within Judaism. This seems a radical inversion. But it is her assent to God “flips” everything– she sets what was askew right again, the harm of Eve healed.** But what Mary put back in place is not a revolutionary society but a the right hierarchy, the reign of the true king–the subject of her Magnificat.

A blessed Advent to all.

A 13th century manuscript drawing showing Mary punching a devil.

*Some of Fexneld’s other work includes a published article: “Bleed for the Devil: Self-injury as Transgressive Practice in Contemporary Satanism, and the Re-enchantment of Late Modernity.” Clearly he has Satan on the brain. As an aside, should I ever become President my first executive order would ban all titles that that have something short and arresting to start, and then ruin it with a long and boring subtitle.

**Many of the fathers from St. Justin Martyr (ca. AD 150) onward develop the Eve-Mary parallel. Both are approached by an angel, and both assent to the angel, but it is Mary who in questioning Gabriel shows wisdom–Eve should have questioned the serpent. Eve’s pride humbles her, whereas Mary’s humility exalts her to the highest place.