For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘feminism

Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women, Exploring God’s Radical Notion that Women are People, Too by Sarah Bessey, Howard Books, 2013, 235 pp.

Jesus FeministThis book was chosen for a UCC clergy book group in which I participate, and I was very disappointed in this book as a choice for that group. We have been a church ordaining women and embracing feminism for 150 years, and this book seemed far too basic for our conversation. Bessey’s argument is about why women should be included in church leadership–a debate we are no longer having.

I am trying to separate my frustration with the choice of this book for that group and my feelings about the book itself, which are not nearly as negative. There are still far too many places in the church where women are not understood to be equally created in the image of God and qualified for spiritual leadership. There are countless women who are silenced, by their churches, by this theology, and by themselves. Bessey’s book speaks faithfully and well to those audiences, especially to those who find themselves with a hopeful suspicion that Jesus actually welcomes women to live up to their full spiritual leadership.

Bessey is a poetic writer, and her book is all heart. Her heart is beautiful, beckoning, pleading with the heart of her readers to be moved to open themselves to God’s plans for women in a more expansive way. This is lovely. She says things like, “Patriarchy is not God’s dream for humanity.” (14) She offers spiritual insights like these:

Let’s be done lobbying for a seat at the Table. I want to be outside with the misfits, with the rebels, the dreamers, second-chance givers, the radical grace lavishers, the ones with arms wide open, the courageously vulnerable, and among even–or maybe especially–the ones rejected by the Table as not worthy enough or right enough. (4)

That’s the thing when we say yes to God–it’s not about that one yes. Our one yes keeps resounding and spreading, like ripples in a pond after a pebble is thrown into it, until the yes of God and the yes of our hearts and the yes of Jesus’ love and the yes of us all sweep over the world. (149)

On losing her faith:

I hold almost all of it loosely in my hand now, all of it but this: the nature, identity, soul, action, and character of God is love–lovelovelovelovelovelovelove. Everything was resurrected on that truth. (50)

However, as a reader I needed more “head” to go with the heart, more substance and scholarship to make her case. Bessey’s understanding of the issues showed little or no research or understanding of biblical scholarship, and especially feminist biblical criticism. I have spent much of my adult life immersed in Christian feminist scholarship, and her book’s ignorance of these conversations was frustrating in every way. She presented ideas and concepts about Jesus, Paul and their attitudes toward women that have been explored in depth for more than 30 years–yet she talks as though she just found them herself in the scripture. While she may indeed have come up with them on her own, her versions lack the depth and perspective of so many ongoing conversations. I wish she had done just a little more homework, to discover that such a world even existed–she writes as though these are new ideas, and they are not. They are shallow, oversimplified (and sometimes even discredited) ideas about the interpretation of scripture about women. She never even questions or critiques the use of exclusively male language about God.

That is a harsh critique, but it is not the end of my assessment of the book. Bessey’s book still matters, it still has a place, it still fulfills a need, and I would still recommend it to certain readers in certain circumstances. Those just emerging from the closed world of conservative fundamentalism or evangelical Christianity will find a soul sister in Sarah Bessey. Women and men just beginning to question the hardened gender categories of biblical womanhood and pastoral leadership will find a handy introduction and invitation to open their hearts and minds a little wider.

I can imagine people to whom I would recommend this book, and to them it would be life-altering. However, that audience is small and targeted, and does not include the many of us who have already decided that women are to be fully integrated into the life and leadership of the church and have moved on to living it, doing it, and watching the consequences and changes women bring.

 

There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor, ed. by Rev. Martha Spong, Skylight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 2015, 215 pp.

Woman in the PulpitFor years, my clergywomen friends and I have been swapping stories about what our lives are like in the crazy, beautiful work of ministry. “You should write that down.” “We should write a book someday.” “Somebody needs to publish all these stories,” the voices echo. Finally, someone did!

There’s a Woman in the Pulpit captures the stories of dozens of clergywomen across denominations and cultures and across the world. The initiative began with the RevGalBlogPals, a blog ring of women in ministry that I read for a long time and was honored to join when I became a blogger myself. Many of these women have been writing their stories for years, others are new to ministry or to writing. They pulled together the best of the best from all the submissions for There’s a Woman in the Pulpit.

Here’s my response: I laughed. I cried. I shouted, “I know exactly what you mean.” I had to put the book down because I was too deeply moved to turn another page. I wanted to answer back by swapping stories of my own. I felt like I was hanging out with old friends (and, truth be told, several of the authors are my friends–in person or via the internet). I said a deep, sighing “yesssss” on multiple occasions.

The breadth of the stories moved me. While I expected the stories about tender moments with the dying to bring a tear or two, I was surprised to also find myself sighing deeply over the stories of mothering through ministry, or presiding at the communion table, or preaching. There were stories I immediately recognized as similar to my own, like keeping vigil at the bedside of a beloved church elder or searching for a nice pair of preaching heels, and stories that offered me a window into another’s life, like parenting a child with a disability or juggling a church and a farm.

If you want to know what it’s like to be a woman in ministry (or just a person in ministry–not all stories are gender-specific), this is the book for you. If you are a person in ministry and want to read something reflecting our experiences with beauty and wonder and humor, this book is for you. If you love a woman in ministry, this book will offer insight into her world. While there are occasional stories of sexism or gender bias, most of the book is just about the beautiful, messy, holy lives we share with beautiful, messy, holy people and congregations.

When I have shared stories like these with others, including male clergy colleagues, there is often disbelief. “That doesn’t really happen, does it?” You might read this book and feel the same question arise. Here is my three-part reply: 1. Yes, this stuff really happens. 2. Yes, I mean it. It really does. 3. Isn’t it beautiful and messy and holy, and isn’t that just what God is like?

I’m so proud to know many of the women whose writing is contained in this book, and I feel blessed to have our stories told for the world to share. Get it, read it, love it.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Anchor Books, 311 pp., e-book.

38447If you know me, you’ll be surprised that I’ve never read The Handmaid’s Tale before now. With my background and affinity for feminist literature, it was a glaring omission. Now, it has been remedied.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of a dystopian future in the United States, where we have poisoned the world so much that fertility drops. American civilization responds by acting to control women’s bodies in a totalitarian regime. Gilead is a colony behind walls, closely guarded with Eyes everywhere so that no one can escape. The central character of the book is Offred, a handmaid. The handmaids are women who have given birth before the regime, who therefore have the possibility of conceiving again. They are forced into a bizarre sexual slavery modeled after the story of Sarah and Hagar, where Sarah has Abraham try to conceive with Hagar and give birth “at Sarah’s knees” so that the baby is considered Sarah’s. Offred’s story takes place early in the regime, because she can remember a time before, with a husband and a child of her own, which have since been taken from her.

Atwood’s novel unwinds the extreme possibilities for controlling women’s fertility and erasing their individual identity. Handmaids are not the only women so controlled–the Wives (unable to conceive, but married to powerful Commanders), the Marthas (household servants), the Unwomen and all the rest are also circumscribed by the system, as are the men in the story. Religious doctrine combined with paramilitary control and panoptic surveillance bring about this situation, which binds everyone, even the most elite like Offred’s Commander.

The world Atwood creates initially appears as nothing more than a heavy-handed feminist critique, but the style of her prose transcends the polemic. Offred herself narrates the story, but her voice vacillates between strident and vacuous. As a Handmaid, she is supposed to be only a vessel, only a womb for carrying things for others. Her voice in story often presents as a void, as her foggy account wraps around the emptiness of her life, never direct or moving forward in her telling. Everything happens to her, she speaks in passive voice. For example, her description of her own body:

I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping.

I found this the hardest part of reading The Handmaid’s Tale. I wanted Offred to use her narrative as resistance, to tell her own story plainly, but the system refused it. The story that emerges is fragmented and hollow. While Offred does find ways to resist and grasp for selfhood in the story, those too are fragmented and uncertain. That’s the power of Atwood’s prose–she binds her characters and binds herself in this world. It is that artistry that takes The Handmaid’s Tale beyond simple feminist polemic. As a feminist, it’s worth reading either way–but this novel and its craft not only awaken the reader to the issues of control over women’s bodies, they create a unique voice in literature.

I am also left wondering about its place within the burgeoning genre of dystopian fiction, especially Young Adult fiction like The Hunger Games, Divergent, Ender’s Game and more. There is a great power in imagining the logical end of all our politics and policies.

Today is the opening of a new movie called For Colored Girls, directed by Tyler Perry. The script is an adaptation of a 1975 choreopoem-style play entitled For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange.

I first encountered Shange’s magnificent poetry when I was in college, when I was diving deep into both African-American poetry and feminist literature. Her words and images penetrated deep into my mind and heart, and they still grab me at my core. After hearing about the movie, I spent most of the evening yesterday combing through books looking for excerpts and watching clips from the stage play on YouTube.

The women of Shange’s creation radiate a kind of honesty, strength and vulnerability, a truth-telling and emotional exposure that is absolutely compelling. She creates compassion without pity. One of my favorite lines is: “i’m finally being real/no longer symmetrical/or impervious to pain.” The women Shange writes are real, almost more than real, rich and deep and profound and broken-bending-to-whole.

The poems speak of a deep need to be seen and known and loved, of heartbreak and hope. And, in the end of the play, they find that love—with God, with each other, within themselves. One of the most famous lines in the whole show comes at the end, when the women gather and repeat: “i found god in myself/and i loved her/i loved her fiercely.” That line has echoed through my theology ever since, imagining God dwelling inside me and inside every other person I meet, God embodied in female form, imagining God using my own self, a God whom I love absolutely fiercely. Ntozake Shange and her words have been a shaping influence and powerful point of spiritual connection for me for many years.

Here’s the problem: I don’t think I trust Tyler Perry with Ntozake Shange. As much as I want to see the movie, as much as I want to see any production of these amazing words, I can’t trust the creator of Medea to handle real women with depth and power and passion and compassion. The actors in the movie are phenomenal, and I would trust any of them to honor the depth and beauty of Ntozake Shange’s poetry. But Tyler Perry has made his name dealing in stereotypes, flat characters, slapstick, and witty repartee. I want to see the film, but I am nervous that he will not do justice to the writing, to the characters and the poetry that have come to mean so much to me. Perry has many talents, but can he do this?

I want the world to know about this play, these women, Ntozake Shange. I hope Tyler Perry can introduce them in a way that is as powerful and compelling as the original.

In Shange’s words: “this is for colored girls who have considered suicide/but are moving to the end of their own rainbows.”

What about you? Do you have a connection to Shange’s work? Have you seen the movie? Do you have an opinion?

Suffragettes, courtesy of allposters.com

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” (For the story of the amendment, click here. The vote passed on August 18, 1920. The amendment became law on August 26, 1920.)

This landmark ruling is less than 100 years old. It is less than a lifetime–there are women alive today who remember the time before women had the right to vote in this country. I recall my own great-grandmother sharing her memory of the first time she was ever allowed to vote.

Because we do not have the video evidence that we have of the civil rights movement or the feminist movement of the 1960’s, we tend to forget the hardship and struggle those women endured to earn rights for women. When I was growing up, the only image I had of what a suffragette looked was Mrs. Banks, the mother character in Mary Poppins, who was portrayed as so self-absorbed and wealthy and concerned for her own rights that her children were misbehaving terribly to get any attention at all. She was the contrasting foil to Mary Poppins, the woman who did not care for herself, her pay, her image—only for the poor, neglected children. Mrs. Banks’ image matched the photos I saw of the suffrage movement, pictures of wealthy women dressed in full Victorian attire, marching with signs and pausing to pose for photos. It gave me the impression that the suffrage movement was more like an outdoor ladies’ tea than a brutal struggle for equality under the law.

It is true that many of the participants and leaders of this movement were privileged white women. There is a legacy of prejudice within the feminist movement that persists today against working class women and women of color. Those of us who are passionate about the ongoing struggle for women’s civil and social equality must continue to fight against this prejudice with all our strength. But the status of early suffragette leaders as wealthy and white does not negate the difficulty of their struggle or the cost of their sacrifice. Their portrayal as indulgent flakes like Mrs. Banks is not only false, but it diminishes their intelligence, commitment and determination, along with the importance of their movement.

The struggle for women’s rights was intense, disruptive and even violent, just like any other civil rights movement. Women with no other source of income than their husbands were thrown out of their homes and separated from their children. Single, working women lost their jobs for attending a suffrage rally. Women were denied the right of free assembly and jailed for their protests. While in jail, they were abused. They staged hunger strikes and were force-fed. They sacrificed their families, their security, their bodily safety, their income and more. For a striking portrayal, I encourage you to watch Iron-Jawed Angels, a film made in 2004 about the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.

And yet somehow we forget their sacrifice in the long litany of civil rights heroes. This erasure took place within a generation of the suffrage movement.  Robert Cooney, director of the Woman Suffrage Media Project, writes:

Suffrage leader Gertrude Foster Brown tells of interviewing one of the women who persuaded the Illinois legislature to grant presidential suffrage in 1913, a key breakthrough in the struggle for national suffrage. She ends her article with this anecdote:

“As I sat with Mrs. Booth and her husband some years ago and they told me the tale of the winning of Illinois, he, strangely enough, remembering better than she the details of the long struggle, it was the listening young people who marked for us how far the world has moved since then. Their son and daughter, then grown, sat round-eyed and enthralled by the story. They had never heard it. Did women, just because they were women, ever have to fight against such incredible odds? And was it their mother who had played the leading role on such a stage? Like most young people they had always taken her for granted–retiring, thoughtful, quiet and kind, just a mighty nice mother–and suddenly they saw her a general, a heroine in one of the great dramas of the world. For this Illinois victory was the turning point in the enfranchisement of twenty-five millions of women.”

So on this anniversary day, let us do three things.

Remember

Lucy Stone,  Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Stone Blackwell, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Frances Willard, Julia Ward Howe—these women and all their anonymous companions deserve a prominent place in our pantheon of justice heroes. Let us remember their sacrifice, courage and dedication, and the true cost of civil rights.

Give Thanks

My life today would not be possible without the women’s movements of days past. My ordination, my career choice, my family, my equal pay, my partnership with my spouse, my legal protection from rape and domestic violence, my reproductive freedom, my political activism, my hyphenated name, my degree in Women’s Studies, my protection from sexual harassment and so many more things that are an intimate part of my daily life and my identity would never have been possible even a generation or two ago. I give thanks to God and to those women who made my life possible.

Recommit

Even here in the United States, there is much work yet to be done for women to overcome discrimination and stand on an equal footing with men. Women still make only $.76 for every dollar a man earns. Domestic violence still takes the life of a woman every single day. Girls can grow up to be anything they want to be—but there is still a dearth of women in top leadership positions in the social, political and corporate sectors. The right to birth control and access to abortion are still hotly debated, and rights are being lost rather than won. Sexual harassment is still ridiculed and date rape is still rampant on college campuses. Women still fight enormous expectations about their bodies, their demeanor, their sexuality and their freedom.

Beyond the United States, many of the world’s women find an even harsher reality. There are still many countries where women do not have the right to vote, to divorce, to leave an abusive husband, to be heard in court, to drive, even to be seen in public without a male escort. Women across the world are poorer than men and more likely to be victims of violence.

We who benefit from the privilege of earlier generations of the women’s movement must recommit to standing together and continuing the struggle, for we still have a long way to go.

Those three acts—remembering, giving thanks and recommitting—are intertwined. Remembering the struggles of the suffragettes moves me to give thanks for the rights I have as a woman in 21st century America. Remembering their courage and sacrifice inspires me to courage and sacrifice of my own, that all women and girls of this earth might have a chance at life, health, self-determination, peace and justice.

Our church’s Women’s Fellowship is a small band of 10-15 women ranging in age from 75 to 90. They meet once a month for a business meeting, program and refreshments. The Women’s Fellowship is the descendant of a once-thriving and prominent Women’s Guild, which attracted hundreds of women who had no other opportunity for leadership or employment and wielded enormous financial and influential power in the life of the church. The evolving nature of gender relationships, the inclusion of women as officers and leaders in the church, and the reality that most women now work full-time outside the home has diminished the need and authority of these kinds of women’s groups over the years. The Women’s Fellowship no longer wields such power, but they are still a mighty cool bunch of ladies who contribute a great deal to the ministry of the church.

I have been leading a book discussion with them every month for their program, and this month the chapter focused on the story of the woman with the alabaster jar, particularly the Johannine account which identifies her as Mary of Bethany. We had already giggled and tittered about the sexual nature of this encounter, and talked about the intimacy of that moment. We wondered together at the woman’s motivations, at her feelings for Jesus. Then I asked, “Well, what about Jesus? Why do you think he accepted such an intimate gesture, such a show of affection? Why did he just sit there and let her wash his feet with her hair?”

“Because he’s a man. They just expect you to serve them,” blurted an 80-something former farm girl, tough as nails and as loyal to her church as anyone can be. And the whole room erupted in the honest, raucous laughter of recognition—for a moment, until we realized she had just made a man-joke about the ego of Jesus Christ. The laughter reverted to nervous giggles followed by awkward silence, as they looked to their pastor to see how she would react.

I have to admit I didn’t know where to start. I wanted to affirm the truth-telling nature of her comment. It opened a powerful connection and shared experience in women’s lives, a feminist consciousness-raising moment. I wanted to name and unpack the reality she described, that men have been trained to expect women to serve and to sacrifice, and they tend to overlook and underappreciate the real cost of women’s gifts and service.

I also felt the need and desire to defend Jesus from being a typical man. I want him to be my feminist hero. I think there is some justification for this in the Gospel. Jesus did talk to women without prejudice, engaged them fully in his ministry, bent gender roles, spoke up in defense of women and adopted a posture of service and sacrifice that is not so different from women’s traditional roles.

I did both of those things, and the conversation progressed. But the original comment still pricks at me, because it reminded me of the uncomfortable reality that Jesus was still a first-century man. He may have been a good man, a forward-thinking, radically inclusive, woman-affirming man—but he was still a man. He probably did not overcome all the prejudices of his day around the expectations of women’s servitude.

It renewed my yearning for a female Messiah, a woman of spiritual and moral consequence, who breaks through gender stereotypes to establish a model of the faithful life as a woman. Jesus sets the model for what a God-dedicated life looks like for a man—serving others, humbling yourself, giving up home and family for the sake of spiritual pursuit, standing up to power and working for peace and justice. What does it look like for a woman to live that kind of life? Jesus’ model life was made possible by the women supporting him, providing food and shelter and clothing to him. I refuse to believe that supporting male spiritual leaders is as good as it gets for women, so what does it look like for a woman to live a model faithful life?

When society already demands humility and servitude and trains us up to practice compassion and reconciliation, what does spiritual leadership in those areas demand? It requires extra courage and fortitude for women to stand up to power and speak out against injustice, so perhaps that is where our spiritual leadership comes forward. But what about giving up home and family? Who’s going to feed the children if women start following Jesus’ model of leaving those tasks to someone else?

This yearning for a female Messiah is not new to me. I believe many women share the aching desire for role models, spiritual and otherwise, that show how to overcome the gender stereotypes of service and humility while continuing to be serving and humble, how to stand up to power and speak for justice while still practicing justice and care in our family relationships, how to lead and give and serve across the multiple, challenging roles and stereotypes women face. Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, the Syro-Phoenician woman, Dorcas, Lydia—these are important examples, but their stories have been so filtered through gender stereotypes that it is impossible to look on their lives without filters.

Jesus is still a feminist hero. But sometimes I still want more.

Why do women always blame the other woman? I do not usually go for celebrity scandal stories, but the headline quotation I saw drew me in. Rielle Hunter, mistress to John Edwards and mother of his child, had an interview with GQ magazine this week, complete with risque photos surrounded by her child’s toys.

In the interview, she blames all of John Edwards’ problems, all his unhappiness and his need for the affair on Elizabeth Edwards. Here’s the quote that drew my ire:

Most of his mistakes or errors in judgment were because of his fear of the wrath of Elizabeth. He’s allowed himself to be pushed into a lot of things that he wouldn’t normally do because of Elizabeth’s story line. And the spin that she wants to put out there. He was emasculated. And you know, the wrath of Elizabeth is a mighty wrath.

http://www.gq.com/news-politics/politics/201004/rielle-hunter-john-edwards-exclusive-interview

Poor John Edwards. He is not responsible for his own actions, for his unfaithfulness, for his decision to cover it up, for his denial of his own daughter, for his decision to renew his wedding vows even as he was involved in an affair. It’s not his fault, she says—he’s a good man. That shrew Elizabeth made him do it.

This is all too familiar. There is a very long, very ugly history of women blaming women for the misdeeds of men. It makes me sad that more than 40 years after the modern feminist movement, we still live in a world where women blame other women for the bad decisions made by men.

Elizabeth Edwards (or at least her supporters) have engaged in the same practice—blaming Rielle Hunter for tempting, flirting, seducing and beguiling John. Why aren’t both women targeting the real offender, John? Why do we, as women, attack each other, compete with each other, destroy each other for the attention of a man?

As long as women continue blaming women for the pain men inflict on them, we cannot examine the broader male power at work—the culture that sees the other woman, not the man who strayed, as a homewrecker; the culture that judges women’s worth based solely on her beauty and gives men permission to reject a woman who does not live up to those standards; the culture that pits women against other women to keep women’s power at bay.

I feel sad for all those involved in this ugly episode—Elizabeth, Rielle, all their children. I feel even sadder that we still find it reasonable and acceptable to debate whether Elizabeth or Rielle was more at fault, and ignore the schmuck behavior of the man at the center of the story.

Let’s stop blaming women for men’s bad behavior, start holding men accountable for their actions and work together on building up women and girls rather than tearing them down.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

Helpful Hint

If you only want to read regular posts, click the menu for Just Reflections. If you only want to read book reviews, click the menu for Just Book Reviews.

RevGalBlogPals

NetGalley

Member & Certified Reviewer

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,662 other followers

%d bloggers like this: