Daughters of a Lesser God? Abraham’s Women in Jerome Berryman’s Complete Guide to Godly Play

This is the second of two blog posts by Cath Kennedy discussing the portrayal of gender roles in Jerome Berryman’s Complete Guide to Godly Play volumes 2 and 6. For more information about this, please refer to the previous post about the portrayal of Abraham’s masculinity here.

The Complete Guide to Godly Play portrays female and male characters very differently. The stories of Abraham and Sarah are clear examples of this. Unlike Abraham, whose life is turned outwards through his social interaction with God, Sarah is never spoken to and her life is inward facing, entirely focussed on childbearing. She is an object for male ownership from the outset, as can be seen in “The Story of Sarah”:

‘…there was a girl named Sarai, which means ‘Princess’. In the same city there was a man named Abram. They met and fell in love.’

These opening words link the female role to that of a ‘princess’: a juvenile fairy-tale trope which children will already be familiar with. According to media scholar Veronica Hefner, Disney animation is often the first ‘moral’ resource children encounter and from which they internalise normative life scripts.[2] The Princess motif should therefore be understood as deliberately linking ‘Sarai’ to the recurring Disney themes described by Hefner and others: sexual maturation, love at first sight, the hetero-normative ‘happily ever after’, and expectations of ‘dutifulness, self-sacrifice, and subservience to males’ which are intrinsic to princess portrayals.[3] It is no accident that survivors of child marriage in the US frequently name the Disney Princess as a factor in the grooming process they experienced.[4]

“The Story of Sarah” also includes the Genesis text’s first instance of sexual trafficking, from chapter 12:

‘Once they went to Egypt and the king of Egypt, called the Pharaoh, wanted her for himself. When he discovered that she was Abram’s wife, he made them both leave.’

It is traditional to elide Abraham’s clear (in Genesis) intention to trade on Sarah’s sexual availability. In fact, this entire episode is generally omitted from retellings. Berryman’s inclusion of it is therefore deliberate. Why exactly he feels it necessary to relate Sarah’s abduction (since Abraham is uninvolved in his version) is unclear, but it is entirely in keeping with his portrayal of female characters as men’s property. The repeated honorific titles attached to the king while Sarah is unnamed, defined as ‘Abram’s wife’, make it clear she is lesser; she is desired because she is beautiful, and defined as property. Neither the narrator nor the other characters ask how she feels, or how she experienced the incident. Sarah fell in love with Abraham, we are told, so her consent to be his wife, to remain so, and to be counted as his property are assumed to be for all time. Given Genesis’ silence regarding love or consent between Abraham and Sarah, Berryman’s portrayal of marriage here seems inspired more by Disney princesses than the Bible.

Sexual objectification is compounded by reproductive objectification when Sarah’s imminent pregnancy is announced to Abraham in her absence and is discussed with him by the three visitors as though she were absent. This contrasts with Genesis which has the visitors enquire as to Sarah’s whereabouts, and then proceed in the knowledge that she can hear them through the tent wall. The fact that Abraham fails to introduce her suggests he decides who she will meet. The visitors are therefore primarily interested in communicating with Sarah, and indeed, they make a promise to her, to be realised on their return. In Berryman’s version, however, Sarah is ‘listening by the tent’, which reduces her to childish eavesdropping, suggesting her knowledge of her imminent pregnancy is somehow illegitimate, something which Abraham, her husband, should rightfully control.

Likewise, in “The Great Family”, Rebekah is not addressed by the servant. He tells ‘her family’ about Abraham and Isaac. In the absence of any relationship with her future husband, Rebekah’s role can only be read as that of reproductive partner. She has given her consent in ignorance of the man she is to marry and the circumstances she is committing to. This is accurate with regard to Genesis, but for it to pass without comment implies such a situation is acceptable, and that Rebekah’s destiny to marry and have children is paramount, regardless of her opinion or feelings. Superficially this resembles a fairy-tale scenario, but at a time when society seeks to prevent forced marriage and child abuse this portrayal is questionable.

The most striking instance of female objectification is Abraham ‘taking’ Hagar in “The Story of Sarah”:

‘Abraham took Hagar, Sarah’s helper, for a second wife’.

The decision is allegedly justified and motivated by the perceived need for a child, but Hagar is not consulted and her perspective is not referenced. She is ‘taken’ as an object and neither the sexual content of the phrase nor its problematic implications for consent are addressed. Furthermore, she is ‘a second wife’, carelessly suggesting that these may be in the plural.

This disturbing abstraction of forced marriage and forced pregnancy is compounded by the Complete Guide’s construction of motherhood. Sarah is passive, discussed and disputed over by others. However, in matters of childbearing she is active, although not in the sense of her embodied experience of pregnancy and childbirth. In Berryman’s version, Sarah is anxious that the child promised to Abraham has not been born. She decides that Abraham should ‘take a second wife’ and later, that he should send Hagar and Ishmael away. These are the only instances of Berryman’s Sarah actively making a decision or communicating. She does not even address her son. Berryman presents Sarah’s motivation as impatience. However, given that at this point in Genesis Sarah is unaware of the promise, her suggestion to Abraham should be read as following the incident in Egypt where the biblical text is clear that Abraham manipulates her to cede her to Pharaoh.

In the Complete Guide retelling more generally, the life of the female characters is presented in negative emotional terms: Sarah ‘wonders’ if she will see Isaac again. She ‘worries’ about not having the promised child, becoming ‘angry’ and jealous when Hagar conceives. Hagar is ‘afraid’ and runs away. Female existence is introverted and essentialised, centred exclusively on childbearing in an abstract sense. The bodily, real experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and breast feeding are totally elided:

‘Ishmael was born’, ‘Do you know what happened? Abraham and Sarah had a son’. ‘She did have a son. She named him … laughter’.

The only acknowledgement of pregnancy is ‘when Hagar was about to have a baby’. The Complete Guide’s excision of the women’s experience of motherhood from the account of their lives, when Genesis has Sarah verbalise these experiences specifically, adds to the sense of their being defined and objectified by their reproductive role. The Complete Guide portrays women’s reproductive capacity as necessary for the constitution of the family, making the female body a means to an end. Like the problematic absence of female sexual consent, this exclusion of female experience as a valid category is troubling.

Clearly, the Complete Guide version of the Abraham cycle has problematic aspects. However, I challenge any reader to find a retelling of it which does not present some of these in its own way. Jerome Berryman’s system is only unique in that it makes these regressive undercurrents, many of which are inherent in Genesis, explicit, and that he builds them into a coherent system. Beyond the details of any individual retelling, the question is why we continue to read our children stories about this dysfunctional family and tell them it is a model to be imitated. Perhaps the main objective of such narratives is to impress the principles of ‘male headship’ and obligatory childbearing on young minds. A cynic might suggest it is traditional to do this early on, before children start asking difficult questions.

Image Credit: detail, “Sarah, de vrouw van Abraham, Jan Saenredam” (attributed to), after Hendrick Goltzius, 1595 – 1599. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/RP-P-OB-27.275

[2] Veronica Hefner, Rachel Jean Firchau, Katie Norton, and Gabrialla Shevel, ‘Happily Ever After? A Content Analysis of Romantic Ideals in Disney Princess Films, Communication Studies, 68 (2017), 511-32 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10510974.2017.1365092

[3] Dawn Elizabeth England, Lara Descartes, and Melissa A. Collier-Meek, ‘Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses’, Sex Roles, 64 (2011), 555-67 http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-9930-7

[4] Aditi Wahi, Kristen L. Zaleski, Jacob Lampe, Patricia Bevan & Alissa Koski, ’ The Lived Experience of Child Marriage in the United States’, Social Work in Public Health, 34:3 (2019), 201 – 13 (206).

Bibliography

Scripts by Jerome Berryman:

“The Great Family.” The Complete Guide to Godly Play Volume 2 (New York: Morehouse, 2002) 57 – 64. (Or look here: http://www.incarnation-gaffney.org/Godly%20Play/TheGreatFamily.pdf or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1P7MdmrDHnM)

“The Story of Abraham.” The Complete Guide to Godly Play Volume 6 (New York: Morehouse, 2006) 32 – 37. (Or look here: http://www.incarnation-gaffney.org/Godly%20Play/TheStoryofAbraham.pdf)

“The Story of Sarah.” The Complete Guide to Godly Play Volume 6 (New York: Morehouse, 2006) 38 – 43. (Or look here: http://www.incarnation-gaffney.org/Godly%20Play/TheStoryofSarah.pdf or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5HsJ4NbHb8)

Scholarly Articles

England, Dawn Elizabeth, Lara Descartes, and Melissa A. Collier-Meek, ‘Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses’, Sex Roles, 64 (2011), 555-67 http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-9930-7

Hefner, Veronica, Rachel Jean Firchau, Katie Norton, and Gabriella Shevel, ‘Happily Ever After? A Content Analysis of Romantic Ideals in Disney Princess Films, Communication Studies, 68 (2017), 511-32 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10510974.2017.1365092

Wahi, Aditi, Kristen L. Zaleski, Jacob Lampe, Patricia Bevan & Alissa Koski, ’ The Lived Experience of Child Marriage in the United States’, Social Work in Public Health, 34:3 (2019), 201 – 13 (206).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.