FOUR GREAT, MUST-READ BOOKS ABOUT WOMEN, PATRIARCHY & EVANGELICAL FAITH
As is often the case, I struggled with apprehension about how to start this BookNotes column. I often start with some thank you to those who have ordered books from us lately and perhaps remind folks of our previous BookNotes. I know some of you have studied those previous lists and we’re glad to continue to offer those 20% off deals on those recent BookNotes. There’s some good stuff reviewed and we are glad for those who have sent orders our way. This Covid thing has been hard and Beth and I are grateful beyond words for your support of our family biz here in PA.
This new set of reviews means a lot to us. We’ve identified ourselves as evangelical feminists, I suppose, since we read All We’re Meant to Be in the early ‘70s. Authors as diverse as James Olthius from Toronto and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen from Philadelphia and my grandma, a Free Methodist occasional revival preacher (not quite as noteworthy as Len Sweet’s grandmother that he writes about in Mother Tongue but she comes close) have shaped us. We’ve studied the Biblical texts and stand with those churches that fully support women in leadership at every level of the church and culture.
Good people can disagree about such things and often we learn as we stretch ourselves into new territory. If you’re not inclined to appreciate these sorts of books, we thank you for bearing with us — maybe even giving it a try. Sometimes we read books that we disagree with and they don’t change our mind, but we know the “other side” better, which is nice. Whatever the outcome, we hope you order some of these books which I’m about to suggest and they are widely read, and seriously discussed.
To get our cards on the table, I will just say this: we believe that Christian patriarchy and the relatively recently coined phrase “Biblical womanhood” (and “manhood”) are wrong-headed and can be hurtful to both our witness in the world and to women and girls involved in the church. Not to mention to men and boys. The books below make the case better than I can and so we highly recommend them.
Of course, there are legitimately complicated questions of Biblical hermeneutics and, like, say, the debates about same-sex attraction or Biblical nonviolence, some who hold to certain views have hardly studied the texts involved. (I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people about what the Bible does and doesn’t say about same-sex attraction or war and often, those with the most outspoken opinions don’t even know the key texts.) So, again: we have to know that (and how) the Bible shapes our views. As a card carrying evangelical – if there was such a thing as a card to carry other than a subscription to CT and the tendency to get choked up when hearing come-to-Jesus altar calls – I do believe the Bible, properly understood and wisely interpreted, is normative for what views we should have about such things as my aforementioned evangelical feminism.
I like the common sense decency of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s We Should All Be Feminist (the title drawn from her tart comment to a fellow Nigerian Igbo guy) and agree with her “fifteen suggestions” offered to Ijeawele, but as a Bible-believing Christian, I want to be clear that it is God’s Word that should decisively inform us. Not common sense or assumptions about kindness or cultural mores or politics. It is the Bible that is a “light before our path.” The authors of the books below all agree.
Having said that, it is also true (and I think there is Biblical warrant for this, by the way) that our human experience influences us and our life in God’s world; that is, our experience matters. I’ve got a mom, a mother-in-law, a wife, and two daughters and bunches of women besties. I care a lot about their well-being. I believe in Jesus’ “golden rule” so can’t imagine – knowing as I do the statistics of women sexual assaulted in our culture – not fiercely wanting a better, safer, more just culture for them. Put simply, just like I would never go to a church that said black people couldn’t be ordained, simply because they were black, I would never join a church that would say my daughters can’t prophecy.
I’ve read Joel, you see. And I celebrate the liturgical calendar and we just spent some time in Acts 2. The Pentecostal Holy Spirit with her tongues of flame have fallen on women and the text insists this fulfillment of covenantal promises is true truth, a blazing new reality. You can try to stop it, but the Spirit will surely show up again (see Acts 15) and drag you along into this new thing God is doing. Whatever subsequent teachings have come to us in the letters of the great Apostle Paul, they must be interpreted in light of this great reality. And those who oppose it, well, remember Acts 10:15, when the Spirit warned Peter about failing to get on board the inclusive gospel train.
There is more that should be said, and others more qualified than I have done so. I’m glad, just for instance, for recent books like Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts by Lucy Peppiatt (IVP; $22.00) and, a few years back, Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism by John Stackhouse, Jr. (IVP; $20.00.) I’m glad they are in November 2021 re-issuing a new edition of Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy edited by the impeccable Gordon Fee (IVP; now $40.00; the new edition will be $45.00.) I haven’t mentioned Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice by Sylvia Keesmaat & Brian Walsh (Brazos Press; $29.00) lately, but it gets readers enmeshed in these questions in first century church in Rome in a provocative and amazing way.
In recent years certain sorts of fundamentalist Christians – some who are exceptionally smart and who have influenced me considerably – have pushed back against many evangelicals arriving at gospel egalitarian sensibilities by coming up with this new nomenclature of “Biblical manhood and womanhood.” Indeed, an organization, The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), and a Bible translation, the English Standard Version (ESV), came out of all of this reactionary, anti-feminist anxiety.
And now, in three definitive recent books, all of this is being exposed as unhelpful and theologically inadequate. We get the big, cultural backstory told from the vantage point of a Reformed, evangelical historian (Du Mez) and it is breathtaking. It is amazing and out in paperback next week (June 8, 2021). We have a (former) Southern Baptist evangelical with a PhD in medieval studies (Barr) telling her story of trauma and new hope. Du Mez calls it “a game changer.” And a wise and impeccably fair woman (Byrd) just calling for a more solid Biblical strategy for discipleship for women and men brings this to focus. I couldn’t put down either and have been eager to tell you more about them. I follow those essential three by another – a memoir, really – of a brave young woman named Meghan Tschanz with a global mission experience, telling of her own sadness about how women are treated in the third world and, also, within pious evangelical circles, She has a light touch, but shares how she coped with confusion, shame, resistance, and about her road to eventual empowerment. This one brings everything into clarity as it tells in horrifying detail, details of her life working against sexual trafficking and the abuse she saw and the harm she experienced from the “purity culture” and radical submission teaching she got from the churches of her youth. Wow.
I am thrilled to seriously recommend these four significant books. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Calvin University’s Kristin Kobes Du Mez is mostly historical and luminously done – I’ve reviewed it briefly here before but it is now out in paperback. Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth is partially a heart-rending narrative of a Southern Baptist woman and her youth pastor husband who had to leave a church they loved because of the church’s anti-women theology and structures; she counters this unpleasantness with amazing theological studies from church history. Wow – what a book!
EACH ARE 20% OFF.
Use the order link at the end of the column which takes you to our secure order form.
(While supplies last this next week or so we have a nifty little sticker which reads “End Christian Patriarchy” designed by Brazos Press as a gift for those who buy The Making of Biblical Womanhood. We’ll try to enclose that as a little gift for one and all.)
We appreciate your support – especially those good customers and friends who disagree with us on this. We hope you’ll consider these books and read them as a practice of nurturing the Christian mind, knowing what you do and don’t believe, and being open to others. I know many of our readers are not affiliated with fundamentalism or evangelicalism so this isn’t about your tribe. We get that. But, still, these are just amazing books and we think you should order them, for a variety of reasons. In any case, are grateful.
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation Kristin Kobes Du Mez (Liveright) hardback, $28.95 – OUR SALE PRICE = $23.16
NOW IN PAPERBACK, $18.95 – OUR SALE PRICE = $15.16 The paperback has a lengthy, new preface.
I wrote in a review almost a year ago that we wished we could tell you much more about this breathtaking, important book; we respect the author immensely and affirm her keen historian’s eye and good writing. Dr. Du Mez is a beloved professor of history at Calvin University in Grand Rapids; she herself grew up in the conservative Dutch Reformed faith community – her father was a theology professor at Dordt College in Iowa. She is both a scholar of conservative American religion and very much a part of it. And, believe me, she knows her stuff. This book is the best overview of the rise of evangelical culture that I have ever read (and I’ve read a lot.) From early Billy Graham to Veggie Tales to the CBMW she knows this topic well and does a marvelous job explaining how we got where we are.
And, as she says in the important new preface in the paperback, her inbox has been flooded with hundreds of emails saying this is the story of my life. From her historian’s look at Teddy Roosevelt’s ruggedly masculine ethos to Wild at Heart citing the rough rider as some kind of model for discipleship to the exceedingly painful times of 2020 into early 2021 (the murder of George Floyd, President Trump’s people and their brazen uprising in the capitol) Du Mez connects the dots to illuminate, as we say nowadays, our cultural moment.
A few years ago, by the way, Du Mez wrote a major, scholarly work on Katharine Bushnell and 19th century Christian feminism called A New Gospel for Women published by Oxford University Press ($34.95.) I once quipped that this new book, Jesus and John Wayne, is a continuation of that story, the 20th century evangelical push-back against the dignity of women with the intentional celebration of macho-men and what was called “muscular Christianity.” The result has not been good and this oddly American expression of militant faith has had huge consequences for the witness of the evangelical church in the last few generations.
Of course, her flow of the story shows that a manly (and, therefore, the logic goes, militaristic) sort of faith perspective was often front and center – boldly, bluntly so, drawing on images and metaphors of soldiers and fighters and athletes and (as she shows) violence and defeating enemies – and this tough-guy stuff in the middle of the 20th century animated missions and organizations like the Promise Keepers by the end of the century. Her chapter carefully exploring (through in-house documents and internal correspondence) how the PK movement itself struggled to achieve a balance around traditionally macho tones (which I found a bit heartening) which gave them phrases like “tender warrior” is fabulous. Who noticed, though, that their lingo changed after 9-11 and then the Gulf War as they intentionally developed an even more militant posture (often scapegoat Muslims.) She documents how in one case a second edition of a PK book removed all the citations of being a peacemaker. Who noticed that their attendance started to decline when they added racial reconciliation as one of the goals? Du Mez is not unkind or inappropriate in exposing this; she is working as a social historian does, looking at the evidence and weaving a narrative, but she is also writing as a concerned Christian, warning us all who care about faith and public life about the machinations and ungodly shenanigans behind the scenes. Her portrayal is simply riveting for anyone who cares about the religious landscape in recent American history.
As a Boston Globe review put it, “It is impossible to do justice to the richness of Jesus and John Wayne in a short review…” It is rich indeed.
Of the many books out these days wondering how the far Christian right could have possibly gotten so deeply involved with and excited about a hedonistic, divorced, playboy (who has paid hush money to porn stars) — and there are a lot of books as it is just such a unbelievably breathtaking historical development nobody could have seen coming — Jesus and John Wayne is truly one of the most important. It is important not as mere journalistic expose but because she looks back decades to explore the roots of the current nationalism and militancy.
And she does it with flair and verve. In the start of the first chapter she writes:
The path that ends with John Wayne as an icon of Christian masculinity is strewn with a colorful cast of characters, from the original cowboy president to a baseball-player-turned-preacher to a singing cowboy and a dashing young evangelist.
Dr. Du Mez is not just looking at the current extreme leaders of the Trumpian religious right such as the bombastic and disgraced Jerry Falwell Jr. and millionaire Pentecostal Paula White, but she explores Dr. Dobson, the aforementioned Promise Keepers, the purity ring/purity culture movement, the gonzo macho yelps of Wild at Heart. She offers astute and lively observation of much of the material culture of evangelicalism, from Veggie Tales to the Left Behind novels, the rage in anti-Muslim books after 9-11, the camo and US flag headbands of the Duck Dynasty guys, and so much more, bringing insight about how all of that white evangelical gumbo piled up, forming a civil religious nationalism that was more than patriotic, but militaristic and idolatrous.
I do not think one needs to have particular concerns about militarism, say, as I do, to be grateful for her work in showing how Jesus’s message has in many ways been compromised by those on the religious right. Her chapter about evangelism and chaplaincy programs (for instance, at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Spring) raised profound questions about faith in a pluralistic culture. She is not overstating these concerns and never crosses over into needless polemics. Again, she is a working historian and has done an extraordinary amount of research and pulls together wide sources to frame this story of how majority/white evangelicalism has drifted into civil religion, gladness about patriotic chauvinism, domination, violence and even war, and, sometimes, nearly complicit in sexual abuse. Her documentation is impressive and tragically compelling. J&JW is a must read for any who care about the integrity of the gospel and the direction of evangelical faith in these days.
Interestingly, the Thomas Nelson publisher just recently re-issued a revised edition of Wild at Heart by John Eldridge. (My own feisty and rather flamboyant 2002 BookNotes critique was, somebody said, the first critical review of that bestseller that was published. Dr. Du Mez didn’t cite that, so I’ve got no need for any full disclosure other than to say I’ve been annoyed by that bad book for decades. I do not know if he changed some of the more stupid things in there – that men need to save a “blond beauty” and that the murderer, adulterer, Braveheart guy was “closer to the spirit of Jesus than Mother Teresa,” but it seems Du Mez’s respected scholarly critique isn’t stopping the popular evangelical press from doing its macho thing. Sigh.)
You may not agree with all of Kristen Kobes Du Mez’s assessment of this or that aspect of evangelical subculture or her conclusions about how this John Wayne testosterone populism contributed to the way evangelical sexual abuse scandals were handled or how some white evangelicals aligned themselves with Trump, even given his admission of sexual assault, or as he publicly encouraged people at his rallies to punch or rough up others.
Agree or not, this is a book for anyone who has lived through the past fifty or so years of evangelicalism. Or for anyone who wants to know about this major aspect of not only what we might call religious history, but American cultural history. From Christianity Today and Billy Graham’s stance on Martin Luther King, to the impact of the cult-like Bill Gothard, from the DeVoss family’s Amway to the evangelical celebration of Ollie North, from the partnership of evangelicals with Catholic dynamo Phyllis Schafly to fight abortion, to the recent popularity of Wayne Grudem and John Piper’s teaching about traditional gender roles, this remarkable book offers a truly wide-ranging account. She shows the backstory and the development of much that influenced the subculture that gave us both Anita Bryant, say, on one hand, and Amy Grant, on another; Pat Robertson on one hand and Francis Schaeffer or Ron Sider on other hands. What a movement it has been, and Du Mez knows it well.
As one who has made a living smack in the middle of much of this, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation sure rang true to me. Beth and I have been appalled at Christian Bookseller Association trade shows to see life sized cut outs of Ollie North, who oversaw corrupt support for death squads that massacred children in Nicaragua; we saw ideological idolatry with Bibles with American flags on them and shallow books saying men need respect but women don’t; books that called for father-arranged marriages, that soft-pedaled the Confederate support of slavery, well financed organizations pushing their macho agenda or ordinary mom and pop booksellers. Even mostly well-respected books have included some really despicable teachings and we have been implicated in much of it.
And if you are not part of the evangelical subculture, this will be an ideal guide to learning about what makes it tick, where it all came from, and how it got oddly harnessed to a vision of life that isn’t particular Biblical, but nationalist, militaristic, materialistic and, at worse, racist. Jesus and John Wayne works its magic by being a wonderfully told social history weaving together stories of folks you’ve heard of and some you haven’t, of movements and organizations you’ve heard of and some you haven’t, but pulling them together in an amazingly coherent and colorful picture of what some of us have lived through in these recent decades. We agree with reviewers who have described it using words like stunning and searing and deeply perceptive.
Please read these two quotes that capture her thesis and explain why this book is an important bit of American history and why it is so very important now.
Jesus and John Wayne demolishes the myth that Christian nationalists simply held their noses to form a pragmatic alliance with Donald Trump. With brilliant analysis and detailed scholarship, Kristin Kobes Du Mez shows how conservative evangelical leaders have promoted the authoritarian, patriarchal values that have achieved their finest representative in Trump. A stunning exploration of the relationship between modern evangelicalism, militarism, and American masculinity. — Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism
Wielding supreme command of evangelical theology, popular culture, history and politics, as well as rare skill with the pen, Kristin Kobes Du Mez explodes the myth that evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in spite of his crude machismo. It turns out that the opposite is true: for generations, white male evangelical leaders and their supportive wives have been building a movement of brazen masculinity and patriarchal authority, with hopes of finding a warrior who could extend their power to the White House. In Trump they found their man. This is a searing and sobering book, one that should be read by anyone who wants to grasp our political moment and the religious movement that helped get us here. — Darren Dochuk, author of Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America
The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Woman Became Gospel Truth Beth Allison Barr (Brazos Press) $19.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.99
I am sometimes unsure of claims made that insist a book is a “game-changer.” Pioneering, unsurpassed, significant, vital — yes. But too often the very ones setting the rules of the game being studied will not find a book compelling, or, more likely, will not ever read one that challenges their role as rule-makers and referees. Yet, if enough read and grappled with fresh ideas there can be a groundswell, a tipping point, a reformation. No lesser a light than historian Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez thinks that with this new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, it just might happen. Du Mez writes,
This fervent, bold, and sweeping history of Christianity and patriarchy is an absolute game changer. Future debates will need to reckon with Barr’s contention that the subjugation of woman has nothing to do with gospel truth.
One can hope. And, taken alongside Du Mez’s own devastating historical critique (and the careful, irenic, and exceptionally sound Recovering from Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, mentioned below) and a handful of other such texts, we might see an erosion of the unbiblical and often hurtful hegemony of Christian patriarchal views and the other unfortunate social consequences that follow from them.
Professor Du Mez is right about Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood. It is fervent and bold and, for those with ears to hear, very, very compelling. Dr. Barr is a clear and passionate writer whether she is telling her own story as a longstanding Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) wife of a youth pastor, driven from her beloved local congregation over her (and her husbands) honesty about their egalitarian convictions or her work in the academy as a respected medievalist. She can tell a convincing tale about the machinations of a local evangelical/fundamentalist church as well as she can inspire us with stories of empowered 12th century nuns who taught Scripture or late Middle Ages pastors whose wedding sermons (in Latin, of course) say little about gender roles (as do those pushing for so-called “Biblical” womanhood) but invite men and women to mutual submission as they both honor Christ alone.
My, my, many contemporary readers, perhaps ill-informed by popular evangelical stereotypes and punditry, will be surprised at how disinterested many conservative evangelicals actually are in examining the Biblical evidence that doesn’t fit their strict gender assumptions and how very spiritual and Biblical some medieval Catholic writings are. Which faith tradition has been most faithful to gospel-centered teachings of grace and focused on Christ and His ways? It is a live question that her book suggests over and over. You will learn a lot, both disquieting and inspiring.
The thesis of this passionate book is simple: a certain movement of mostly Reformed, often Baptist, theologians and popular writers who wrote the “Danvers Statement” and formed the “Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” (John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Denny Burke, Kevin DeYoung, etc.) insist that they are right in teaching what Biblical womanhood and manhood is and it has created within evangelicalism a strict and harsh movement that has demeaned and hurt many. (And, for some, this male-centric worldview has propped up even a heretical view of the Trinity called “the eternal subjugation of the Son to the Father” showing how their social agenda about power and hierarchy has influenced even their view of God.) They say that this simply what the Bible really teaches and they run with it (with guys like John Piper instructing women who are at home when a mailman visits how to speak in a way that doesn’t deflate his masculine identity). As a historian, Barr shows that this late 20th century and early 21st century push-back against more egalitarian soundings within evangelicalism, is not in keeping with the beautiful orthodoxy of the best of church thinking down through the ages. She – perhaps inspired by Du Mez, but perhaps not – explains how this pitching of Christian patriarchy as “complementarianism” arose (as the back cover puts it) “from a series of clearly definable historical moments.”
As Scot McKnight write of it, “Barr’s careful historical examples drawn especially from medieval history hold together a brilliant, thunderous narrative that untells the complementarian narrative.” McKnight exclaims, “I could not put this book down!”
You may not have heard of the Danvers Statement or the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood and their mission, but it very much a part of the religious landscape and there are dozens and dozens of books for women or men explaining the joys and wisdom of taking up this sort of submissive “Biblical womanhood.” (It is such a thing that a decade ago the late Rachel Held Evans wrote a book exploring Biblical texts about women and actually doing whatever they said in the part slapstick and part deadly serious A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master’ and a spat of books and podcasts and conferences rose up and called her either blessed or heretic!)
Many otherwise fine evangelical movements and denominations and organizations have endorsed the CBMW. The strategic Southwestern Baptist Seminary and the Presbyterian Church of America and other such stalwart institutions give it widespread circulation and gravitas. (Indeed, the flagship book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism weighs in at well over 675 pages and it is used in many conservative seminaries.) I suspect many of our readers are not aware of much of this (while some, I am sure, accept it.) Believe me, this is important.
Beth Barr begins her story with her own inner anguish. It is her story to tell but she and her husband are increasingly out of synch with their strictly anti-feminist church body. It is painful. In these sorts of churches, a woman like her – with a PhD in theological history and a professor at a Christian university – dare not teach teen boys Sunday school. This obsession with one or two verses (misunderstood, many would say) of Saint Paul (while missing other clear texts) silencing women in church creates a fetish so odd that one of her late teen college kids sincerely asked if she had her lecture notes given in the university approved by her husband. She assured him her husband – who did not have a PhD in medieval history! – had no desire or authority to do such a thing.
You may find this a bit extreme, but it is, I assure you, not uncommon. This gendered hierarchical approach is cemented deeply in the very worldview of those who stand in this tradition. As Aimee Byrd observes in Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, those in the CBMW movement view gender roles as ontological. That is, they aren’t even “roles” or “tasks” or “callings” but cemented into the natural law of the universe.
(This is why for some, again, they needed to adapt a heterodox view of the Trinity – that the pre-existent Jesus is not one in being with the Father but submits hierarchically in some chain of command – because that sort of hierarchically Triune kind of God Himself naturally is the most foundational support of a vertical, chain-of-command view of gender and family and society. This is deeply theological stuff and the scholars behind it are serious and, most non-compromising on one iota. Recall the impact on social thinking and cultural goals even international politics described in Jesus and John Wayne to see where this leads.)
Over the years I have read many books that offer alternative readings of the Biblical texts that seem to insist that women ought not preach, that submission is only for women (despite Ephesians 5:11) and have long wondered why these common sense explanations are so controversial in some circles. I assume you know some of them that help us understand what Paul did or didn’t mean in Corinth or why he said as much to young Timothy.
(I realize that many conservative evangelicals within mainline denominations that ordained women in the 1970s left those denominations not necessarily or primarily over the ordination of women, but because the debates about it and the proponents for women’s ordination in those years in those denominations seemed less interested in obedience to Biblical authority with even national leaders just glibly dismissing key Pauline texts. Let it be said, clearly – Beth Barr is not an old-fashioned theological liberal who would dismiss the Bible with the wave of a hand. Not at all.)
Still, it has always seemed to me that the patriarchal interpretation need not be at all a foregone conclusion among those with high regard for the authority of Scripture, and in fact, cannot be, since Paul honors as leaders specific women in the NT. Of course, the Holy Spirit clearly falls on women as well as men to prophecy (look it up!) It has seemed to me that one must be particularly stubborn and loyal to some patriarchal ideology not to see and concede this. I get it that it is complicated (and that there are differences between functioning leaders like Huldah or Noadiah, who argued with Nehemiah and the apostolic teaching in the early church) but the plethora of good books exploring all this has convinced me of the egalitarian perspective. To be honest, when I heard The Making of Biblical Womanhood I didn’t think I needed to read yet another. But once I read the first page, I was hooked.
Like Scot McKnight, I couldn’t put this down. The Making of Biblical Womanhood explores not only Beth Allison’s own story – which was heart-rending and reminded us that these are not abstract ideas but that they traumatize real people and real churches. What agony this book explores. If Christian charity creates an attitude of empathy and sympathy, as it surely does, this family’s story will move you deeply.
Also, there is very good (and lively) scholarship here. Professor Barr explores the Biblical texts and the history of their translation and interpretation. She shows how some women are “written out of” the English Bible – for instance, see her exploration of the infamous Junia vs Junias rendering of Romans 16:7 (and the question of what it means to consider her as one with the apostles.) Barr looks at specific Biblical texts, writes well as a historian about the early church, the pre-Reformation times, and Reformation era understandings of key texts. She shows that the road to what many now call “Biblical womanhood” is rooted in whole lot of very unique debates about specific Biblical subjects. It was fabulously interesting and added new levels of conviction and passion in me.
It is obvious that she brings a well-informed and well educated, quite knowledgable eye to recent interpretive debates.
For instance, Barr describes the backstory of those traditionalists who alleged that the use of gender inclusive language (that is, “humankind” instead of “mankind,” etc) of an updated NIV was driven by some compromising spirit of the age and which eventually lead to the formation of the ESV translation, done quite openly as an anti-feminist translation.
With chapters like “Sanctifying Subordination” and “Making Biblical Womanhood Gospel Truth” there is some overlap with the Du Mez history. There is more Biblical exegesis and as a medievalist she is able to describe pre-and-post Reformation documents and practices regarding women, the home, the family, the church.
Some of this is surprisingly contemporary. Barr exquisitely tells of her own experiences as her story somehow intersects with well-publicized events such as the 1980s conservative purge of theological moderates from the Southern Baptist seminaries and denominational agencies and the rise in the new century of the #metoo movement as the sexual abuse of women and children in evangelical churches became part of the national discourse. Even the recent conversations about these things led by (and the often vile backlash against) former Southern Baptist Bible teacher Beth Moore gets a mention.
The last chapter of The Making of Biblical Womanhood is especially moving, entitled “Isn’t It Time to Set Women Free?” Barr writes about women of the past who fought for recognition of their gifts and authority. She nicely tells of C.S. Lewis’s friend Dorothy Sayers (a 1915 graduate of Oxford) who, to Jack’s dismay, affirmed women’s ordination in the Church of England in 1948 and a thirteenth-century female author of Christian fiction (yes, she says, thirteenth century readers loved “trashy romance novels”) named Christine de Pizan who fought against crude and misogynistic views in then-contemporary fiction. Dr. Barr tells about women church historians who are discovering long suppressed stories of women missionaries, preachers, teachers, translators, evangelists. (In true memoir fashion, she tells of her husband buying an expensive CD and book set from U2 which made her feel she could splurge on her heart’s desire, a thick text called Women Preachers and Prophets Through Two Millennia of Christianity edited by Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Pamela J. Walker. Ha.)
And Barr reveals one of her darkest experiences, involving a guy shaped by the exceptionally authoritarian Bill Gothard Seminar movement. If you’ve read Du Mez (or any number of mainstream exposes of the ugly side of the evangelical movement at the end of the 20th century) or paid attention to sexual abuse scandals among the “pro family” religious right you know the name. God bless Beth Allison Barr for channeling the trauma from her own story and for stewarding well her own professional scholarly gifts in a way to serve us all. It will help heal the pain that some readers experience and it will introduce others to the harmful impact some accepted teaching has.
Barr wouldn’t have had to relive this story. She wouldn’t have to be a public figure, an advocate. But she did (and now has faced a painful backlash from aggressive social media opponents.) I commend this book to you no matter what you know about the “Biblical womanhood” movement or, more generally, what you think about Bible-based feminism. The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth is a great read, an important expose, exciting, and a helpful foundation for formulating your own view of gospel truth. Very highly recommended.
Recovering From Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose Aimee Byrd (Zondervan) $18.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.19
I have highlighted this book before, telling you about it, commending it, celebrating this fine, relatively conservative, evangelical thinker. We’ve appreciated her other books written out of what I believe is a PCA background. In 2016 she wrote No Little Women: Equipping All Women in the Household of God (P&R; $12.99) arguing for and explaining how to have ordinary, evangelical church women be taught more meaty sorts of theology rather than the often touchy-feely, shallow stuff of women’s devotional Bibles, women’s Bible lessons, and women’s retreats. Without challenging men’s ownership of key leadership roles in the church, she lamented that not enough is done to seriously equip women in serious Biblical and theological awareness. Insofar as this is a problem in all sorts of churches (ahem) that’s a helpful book. It sort of emerged from her previous book, Housewife Theologian that had a cover that was a nostalgic throw-back to white middle class women of the 1950s, which was a great book turning “housewife” and “theologian” on their heads. The cover didn’t do it justice, but scholars like Carl Trueman got behind it, noting it was written “with gusto and enthusiasm.” Advocates of “Biblical womanhood” like Susan Hunt and Gloria Furman endorsed it, which indicates the “Gospel Coalition” and CBWM circles she ran in. That she now writes about “recovering” from some of that is especially poignant. And, it is remarkable.
This great recent Recovering From Biblical Manhood & Womanhood… book deserves a much longer review, but I need you to know at least three things.
First. It is very well written. That line about an earlier book written with “gusto”? This has it even more. Recovering From… is clever, funny, even, quite interesting, and works the story of removing yellow wallpaper wonderfully as a motif (from the cover art to the “peel and reveal” that end each chapter. Well done!) Ms Byrd is passionate but not strident. It’s a really engaging read and I highly recommend it for showing how serious, even contentious, theological topics can be explored with wit and fidelity and grace.
Secondly — and I cannot emphasize this enough: Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is a love letter to the evangelical church and, like her other books, is situated firmly within the centrist confines of sharp evangelicalism. Her podcast (“Mortification of Spin”) is done for The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. For Pete’s sake, she says good things about the book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Some of the chapters of this book were talks given at pretty conservative churches, including some PCA congregations. (Recall, they do not ordain women to be preachers or elders.) This is not militant or heavy handed. She is obviously a sound disciple of Jesus illustrating His virtues and maturity.
So, Ms Byrd does not fit the caricature of a progressive Christian feminist. She does not call herself that (and doesn’t cite the usual suspects in that tradition.) She is a conventional Bible scholar and well trained, even conservatively, theologically speaking. She’s the kind of person who sent out a tweet happily showing off her purchase of the recent biography of Herman Bavinck by James Eglinton. She cares about finely tuned theology so much that she had to be the one to call out members of the CBMW for complicity in supporting goofy heresy about an alleged hierarchy of subjugation within the Trinity. You see, recovering from “Biblical womanhood” or not, she is honest before Scripture, loyal to the God of the Bible revealed in Christ and honors the great creedal tradition of Nicene Christian conviction and classic Protestant theology.
Serious, Reformed scholars like Covenant College theologian Kelly Kapic says stuff like this:
It would be wonderful if all of us might listen attentively to a sister who is calling all believers – woman and men – to grow in their love of Scripture even as she asks us to recognize our blind spots and problematic assumptions.
So, Recovering from Biblical Manhood & Womanhood is well written, delightful, even, at times, and it has as its primary agenda to be faithful and honorable as it engages the Bible well, standing in and with the clearest sort of historically orthodoxy evangelical theology. There is nothing sensational, shallow, or unwise. As Jen Pollock Michel notes, Aimee Byrd’s book is so important because, “wading through the cultural murkiness, Byrd returns us to Scriptures with theological rigor.” And that she does.
Thirdly, although I’ve framing this remarkable book as gracious and charitable, interesting and informative, moderate and faithful, it does – let’s be honest – name names and call out the big boys who are perpetrating great harm in the name of the gospel. She does tell some of her story and it is frustrating how she has been patronized and even demeaned. Even a non-threatening, moderate voice like her rocks the boat.
I love how she draws on literature and popular culture a bit to clarify where some gender assumptions come from. She helps us be more discerning about presumptions and attitudes and she peels back some ugly stuff in contemporary evangelicalism and reveals what’s going on underneath.
Golly, it seems like it ought to be common knowledge by now, but we really do need her section called “What makes a masculine male and what makes a feminine female?” and her discussion of “What makes masculine or feminine virtues?” Like any doctor poking around the sore spots, it hurts a bit. Some will take offense. Byrd goes out of her way to affirm much about her theological opponents, but she also is forthright. This books is not aimed at the scholarly community but is for ordinary believers; yet, it feels less like prophetic expose (as the above two titles perhaps could be read) but more like public debate — fair, logical, measured. It is a powerful, genuine call to deeper discipleship and Christlikeness and for all of us to grow up into better faith and considerable holiness.
If you are interested in the topic of women’s faith formation (or for that matter, women in the Bible) this fine work will be helpful. If you are not so sure of the criticism of “Biblical womanhood” and want a reliable, clear, theologically evangelical voice (Byrd does not, as far as I know, believe in women’s ordination, btw) this book will nudge you or your church towards a more generous view.
If you care about the flourishing of congregations and especially of their call to be a school of discipleship for all, note the important subtitle of Recovering From Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose. Which – spoiler alert! – is not to make men and women somehow confirm to specific or limited roles as defined by anti-feminist traditionalists, but to help us all find ourselves robustly in the big, redemptive narrative of Scripture, the Holy Book that includes stories that were not called (as Byrd cleverly notes) “The Book of Boaz” but the “Book of Ruth” and that, near the end, has the great missional apostle named Paul passing the holy baton to co-workers in the Kingdom, woman with name Phoebe and Junia. This great book is an important resource for the church of Jesus Christ and a guide to all that want to help women and men recover and be whole.
Women Rising: Learning to Listen, Reclaiming Our Voice Meghan Tschanz (IVP) $17.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $13.60
If the previously mentioned books are by academics – one a historian, the other a theologian, and the third a lay Bible teacher and “housewife theologian” with tons of scholarly chops – Women Rising is a fresh voice of popular spiritual memoir. The author, Meghan Tschanz, is young, passionate, honest, astute. She’s a good writer and a thoughtful young adult, but her book brings a very different feel than the ones above. Did I mention it’s a memoir?
Women Rising: Learning… draws on several big picture studies of analysis. Indeed, the formidable Carolyn Custis James, author of Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, wrote an excellent foreword, but it is mostly her own story. And what a story it is.
Tschanz sounds very much like many admirable young women I know, women who caught a vision in their college years about making a difference, who through careful reading and some short term mission trips and study abroad experiences came to care about some of the most important things we can care about in this broken world. She joins with others, affiliates with a bold mission that serves the poor, and, soon enough, grew to be engaged with anti-trafficking work. Meghan’s often exciting story (leavened with the light details of friendships and packing and parents and dating and the mundane routines of prepping for mission work) unfolds chapter by chapter as she deepens her awareness and learns how to listen to women in developing countries.
Many of these stories will surely grab your heart but one is illustrative. In one chapter Tschanz talks with women who experienced female genital mutilation and as most know, this violent custom is debated widely within indigenous cultures and among their missionary guests. The cultural and medical complexities, the heartbreak, the struggle (and her not necessarily handling it with the most possible wisdom) shows part of her learning how to navigate local cultures and grave injustices. It’s good stuff.
Of course, she eventually tells of their up-close-and-personal friendships with sex workers and those being prostituted and trafficked. How she and her friends care so earnestly and desire to bring true, meaningful aid (and, when appropriate, gospel proclamation) is so admirable. She needn’t cite the great books about wholistic mission because she lived it and tells her story nicely. And it is a story that takes us around the world and inside not only the unsavory places where women are demeaned but also inside the dorms and hotels and campsites the Western missionaries and organizers and global workers lived.
(If this were an academic article, I’d put this in a footnote, but, for the record, although Women Rising isn’t a book about this sort of bigger picture stuff, I am sure the author Meghan Tschanz knows volumes like the several books by Gary Haugen of IJM or Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development by Brant Meyers or Whole and Reconciled: Gospel, Church, and Mission in a Fractured World by Al Tizon, with a foreword by Ruth Padila Deborst. I hope she knows the stories of Liberation Is Here: Women Uncovering Hope in a Broken World by Nikole Lim and works like From Risk to Resilience: How Empowering Young Women Can Change Everything by Jenny Rae Armstrong. And I’m sure she knows the rigorous research in The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls by Elizabeth Gerhardt and the powerful Scars Against Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence Against Women by Elaine Storkey. These are all books we’ve highlighted before and commend to you for those interested in global patriarchy, books that would offer more developmental substance to her anecdotes.)
Meghan Tschanz’s story walks us with engaging prose through her years working to reach women who are at risk. However Women Rising: Learning to Listen, Reclaiming Our Voice is more than the story of one US woman learning about the global abuse of women. It is, in a sense, her own discovery and coming to awareness of the patriarchy baked in to many of the evangelical institutions with whom she valiantly worked.
What is going on when the mission is to fight sexism seen in such ugly ways as sexual trafficking but the churches and sending ministries with which she served where themselves mired in male chauvinism and insistence on hierarchical structures which assumed women’s submission? What to do when she finds herself trying to help empower poor or trafficked women, helping them trust their own voices and esteem, and realized that her own voice, her own esteem, has been seriously harmed by the false, patriarchal assumptions of her own evangelical traditions? In some ways, this very personal story is a case study of the big picture critique offered by Du Mez. Barr, Byrd, and others.
I found reading some of this really enjoyable – part of the plot is her wishing to date and her own struggles with a godly understanding of all that, and many young readers will relate. Yet, some was anguishing to read – in part because people I know have been there, being rebuked and mistrusted by organizations we love for not towing the line, shamed for being interested in justice not just “over there” but “in here, too.” For asking questions about institutional cultures and an over-reliance of male leadership. Tschanz writes with humility and candor and grit and grace, and it is beautiful to see her grow and emerge more boldly as the story unfolds. As it says on the back, “Meghan calls Christian women to amplify their voices for righteousness – and she calls the church to listen.” Yes, yes!
In Carolyn Custis James’ excellent introduction, she explains the uniqueness of this book so well. She writes, after explaining that some of the book is about third world women and girls who endure mistreatment:
Meghan’s work is unique in that she doesn’t distinguish those women from herself and other women in the evangelical church. She masterfully weaves in her own often costly journey as a young girl growing up in the evangelical purity culture amid pervasive teaching about female submission to male leadership that diminished her sense of self and created an alarming vulnerability. Later, when confronted by horrific violence against women, a crisis of conscience compelled her to ask deeper questions. One of the many strengths of this book is that she doesn’t just describe the issues, she drills deeper to explore how the church’s gender theology is part of the problem and needs to be reexamined against this wide-angle perspective.
Listen to this, one of many enthusiastic accolades:
Women Rising should be required reading for Christians. For every girl and woman who has been made to feel small, demeaned, violated, and confused, and for every man who has bought into the lie of female subordination and missed out on all that half the church has to offer, Meghan’s words speak freedom and hope for a better way.”–Blythe Hill, CEO and founder of the Dressember Foundation
Well, there you have it. One great, fascinating book by a historian. Another by a church historian and theologian. Another by a lay theologian and Bible scholar, and a very moving memoir by a woman on the front lines working for justice, helping women reclaim their too often muted voices. I know some of these four women have faced exceptional attention and some of their critics have been rude and even cruel. Pray for them. And, please, considering buying their books. Thank you very much.
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