Sunday, February 16, 2014

Review of "Jesus Feminist"

Over the weekend, I finished reading Sarah Bessey's Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible's View of Women: Exploring God's Radical Notion That Women Are People, Too. Let me just begin by saying it's not what you think. Despite its controversial title and sarcastic subtitle, much of Bessey's book resonated with me. Written in the popular blogger's conversational, metaphor-saturated style, Jesus Feminist is very much an invitation to those disenchanted with their church's stance on or treatment of women to join others at a "bonfire on the beach" to be bandaged up, edified and commissioned to a new, fresh calling of living fully as God intended.

For the completely uninitiated into the world of Christian feminism, the early chapters briefly probe how traditional "clobber" passages like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (keep your mouths shut, ladies!) and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 (no teaching men either!) should shape our theology and culture. Bessey gently suggests that Paul's apparent silencing and subordinating of women in these verses should be taken within the particular context and for the particular audience for whom the letters were written. This is an argument that I've heard articulated more effectively by Greg Boyd, Rachel Held Evans, Richard Foster and others, so I didn't feel Bessey added anything "radically" new to the conversation. But for those who aren't familiar with Christian egalitarianism or have been taught that biblical womanhood unequivocally means silently submitting, ever-yielded to the men in their lives and churches, glorifying God best and only in their proper sphere at home, Bessey's ideas might be new and might prompt some thoughtful questioning.

The Canadian author describes her own "ah-ha" moment when she realized her upbringing and her own marriage didn't match her local church's female narrative during her brief years living in Texas:
Everywhere I turned, evangelical sermons on marriage were filled with "Oh, you know women" jokes. Generally speaking, women were perceived as soft, emotional, and naturally nurturing, while men were positioned as natural leaders, hating to talk about relationships, and requiring more sex. ... There was a lot of talk in those days of the "feminization of the Church" and how guys needed to step up and be men, which apparently resembled the ideal of benevolent dictators, rather than the Son of Man. (44)
While I've definitely been exposed to books and teaching that contains elements of what Bessey described, I thankfully do not feel that level of oppression in my own church, be it smack in the middle of the Bible Belt. Instead of stirring up my inner rabble-rouser, this book allowed me to know Sarah Bessey more-- from her "happy-clappy" Jesus-loving Pentecostal upbringing to her beautiful, accidentally egalitarian marriage to her traumatic experiences in childbirth to her eye-opening trip to Haiti. And I like her. I like a lot of what she says:

About biblical womanhood:

Biblical womanhood isn't so different from biblical personhood. Biblical personhood becomes a dead list of rules when it becomes a law to keep. If we have a long list of rules-- Put others first! Be generous! Give money! Believe this! Do that!-- it's a dead religion from a glorified rule book.  
When our hearts, minds and souls are deep within the reality of living loved, we discover most of those "rules" from Sunday school are simply our new characteristics and our family traits. They are the fruit born of a meaningful life-changing relationship-- they are the flowers of life in the Vine. And there are many expressions and ways to live out love, joy, peace, kindness, patience, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control, and goodness--as men, as women, as wives, as husbands, as mothers, as fathers, as friends, as disciples. Marriage and motherhood are not the only way to biblical womanhood... (98)

And this:

We are not biblical women because we achieve status as a stay-at-home mother and home-cook every meal. We are not men of God because we alone make the "hard decisions" and exclusively provide for our families, let alone because together we live our some version of the Greco-Roman household code. We are not living biblically by stuffing our true gifts and callings and passions into worn-out cliches, turning scriptural encouragement and invitations into new rules.
Our work in this life grows from the tree of his great love for us, birthed out of a growing and real relationship with Love itself. The organic blossoming of the fruit of the Spirit is only because of our life in the Vine. Whether we turn to the right or to the left, our ears will hear a voice behind, saying "This is the way; walk in it." (100-101)

On God's "Father-Mother heart" (And I love, love this):

... my Abba gave me a glimpse--just a glimpse-- of his great unconditional love for us through my love for my own tines. After that, I could not see him the same anymore. He wasn't in the fire or in the hurricane or in the earthquake; he was in the still, small voice--the creaking of my rocking chair in the wee hours of the morning, and the daily practices even in the never-forgotten lines from the old praise chorus "As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after thee" on my lips, sleeping milk-drunk babies, one after another, in my arms. He was in the sacred every-day of my life, redeeming it all, teaching me to pray, filling me with joy in my weakness, teaching me to rely on him. Here, I learned how I am more than my daily work, and yet he kept showing up in the mundane. (113)

On women's ministry:

You have a great women's ministry when there is room for everyone. You have a great women's ministry when you have detoxed from the world's views and unattainable standards for women and begun to celebrate the everyday women of valor, sitting next to you, and when you encourage, affirm, and welcome the diversity of women-- their lives, their voices, their experiences-- to the community.
You have a great women's ministry when your women are ministering -- to the world, to the church, to one another -- pouring out freely the grace they have received, however God has gifted them, including cooking and crafts, strategy and leadership.
There is not one way to be a woman; there is not one way to do women's ministry. There is only loving and serving God, doing life together in the full expression of our unique selves. Make room for them all and give glory to God." (132-133)

On the Kingdom of God:

As we follow Christ in the counsel of the Holy Spirit, resting in the love of our Abba, we no longer fear-- ... this fearless love allows the mission of God to infuse our smallest seed lives, growing through to our families, our communities, our culture, our government--tendrils twining

That's just a taste of what got me scribbling in the margins. I've always loved the idea of the Body of Christ, with each member knit together in life, functioning and expressing the Head. Much of what Bessey writes seems rooted in this biblical principle.

The short of it:
Overall, Jesus Feminist argues gently that women should be allowed to teach, lead and work in their marriages, their churches and other spheres of influence. Marriages and all relationships within and outside of the church work best and glorify God the most when all members are allowed and encouraged to use their unique gifts, which, contrary to some patriarchal views, might look like a woman "leading the charge" as the breadwinner of her household, as the CEO of a company or as the lead pastor of a church. But it doesn't have to look that way. It could also simply be women taking the lead to serve where they see needs. And it absolutely does look this way in many, many churches across the full range of the patriarchal/egalitarian spectrum.

My take-away:
Bessey's oft-repeated metaphor of coming outside to join others at the beach-beacon bonfires, I now see is not as a call to eschew socially conservative churches or to shirk a love-and-respect-complimentarian-style marriage. No, her message is much less controversial. Bessey is advocating that all women (and men) seek God earnestly and obey His still small voice. That we initiate justice and Christian community through servanthood in the places where injustice runs rampant-- be it the lonely corridors of a state-subsidized nursing home or the slums of Haiti, the local shelter for battered women or the well-greased machine of child-trafficking in Asia. That we be led by God's stirring in our spirit and use our unique, God-given gifts to act upon those motions. And that we are commissioned to initiate genuine community with other women, to together take a step toward our true Head and submit to Him our eyes, ears, hands and feet. We are called together to identify with Christ and His unifying mission.

I finished this book in the wee hours of Saturday, and then eagerly discussed it with my husband, Joe, as he rinsed and loaded the dishwasher (to give you a little hint of where we're at on the complimentarian-egalitarian spectrum). As I pondered what Abba's still small voice was whispering to me, I felt renewed encouragement to pursue a little wish-dream of mine: to lead a parenting study/prayer group with other moms. It begins this Tuesday, and, bolstered on Bessey's stirring prose, I'm so excited to light my own little bonfire.

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