Women in theology, book 1 of 10: Reframing Hope

Reframing Hope Cover 2

A few weeks ago on this blog, I wrote about how a disproportionate number of religious books are written by men. In response, I was flooded with suggestions of female religious writers, more than 70 authors in all, to help correct the imbalance on my own bookshelf.

After taking some time to learn about each author, I narrowed down the list down to ten books I plan to read by the end of the year.

Earlier this week, I finished the first book on my list, Reframing Hope by Carol Howard Merritt. My choice of where to start was driven partly by a pragmatic consideration: I’m starting with the books I already have. Carol was generous enough to send me a copy of Reframing Hope. (She also sent copies of her other books, Tribal Church and Fighting for Peacewhich look equally intriguing.)

My plan over the coming weeks is to share some of my takeaways from each book. I’m not planning to review each book, per se. I don’t see it as my place to judge which voices are worthy of a hearing. Instead, I want to adopt the posture of a learner. My primary hope is to learn the art of listening to voices I haven’t always been very good at hearing.

Now, on with the show…

Reframing Hope CoverReframing Hope
by Carol Howard Merritt

The premise of Reframing Hope is to help churches to thrive in a constantly shifting world so they can meaningfully connect with their communities—and, in particular, with new generations. Carol argues for churches doing what they’ve have always had to do: contextualize the “hope within us” for the world in which we find ourselves, not the one that existed 50 years ago.

Some of the things I appreciated most about Carol’s book…

The way she transcends the extremes of stubborn resistance to change on the one hand and, on the other hand, a reactionary tendency to throw everything old out the window.

The way she expertly diagnoses recent trends in three distinct streams: mainline, evangelical, and emergent—and relates them to the larger cultural and technological shifts taking place. She connects the dots in ways I hadn’t considered before.

The wisdom she shares on using technology as a tool for ministry. On the one hand, Carol unpacks some of the dangers of relying too much on faceless digital technology. One danger I hadn’t thought much about until reading Carol’s book is how all this technology, if not carefully used, can reinforce inequality between the economically privileged and the disadvantaged, who have less access to technology. Yet Carol also shows how social media can be a tool for nurturing community, alongside (not in place of) more traditional means.

She practices what she preaches, too. Case in point: Carol and I have never met in person. Our interaction to date has been confined to a few tweets and maybe the occasional blog comment. Yet she saw my post about wanting to expand my reading list so I could start listening to more female voices, and she offered to send me some of her books. That may not sound like much, but look at it this way. She made a meaningful investment in my spiritual formation. It required the gift of her time, a certain amount of money to send me her books, and genuine concern on her part for someone she’s never even met. All made possible by Twitter and her willingness to use her platform for community-building rather than empire-building.

Loyal radicals

I also appreciated how relatable some aspects of Carol’s journey were. We both grew up in evangelical churches, we both intersected (to varying degrees) with the emergent movement, and we both wound up finding a home in the mainline church. I’m especially grateful to Carol because she gave me new language to help make sense of my own journey. She writes about “loyal radicals” who possess many of the same proclivities as their emergent counterparts, yet find themselves drawn to more “institutional” expressions of the church.

Carol makes a powerful case for the importance of these institutions, too. Some in the emergent stream like to think of denominations as a thing of the past, having long outlived their usefulness. Tony Jones, for example, talks about the “denouement of denominations.” To him, this is not a tragedy but something to celebrate. Elsewhere, he writes, “Few things piss me off as much as the sinful bureaucratic systems of denominational Christianity.”

Emergent Christianity imagines itself breaking the shackles of organized religion in the name of inclusivity and progressive values. Yet the leadership of emergent is almost entirely white and male. And if some of the more explosive charges made recently are true (see the comment thread on David Hayward’s recent post), then the emerging church has a long way to go before it can claim to have put sexism and misogyny behind it.

It was the mainline church—for all its bureaucratic inefficiencies (and oh there are many) that gave Carol a platform for ministry, that affirmed her calling and made room for her and others like her to lead. As she writes:

The organic leadership model, where pastors are raised up through the community without the shackles of a denomination, did not work for me—and I daresay that model probably fails to work for countless other women, as well as some historically disadvantaged minorities…. Although many emergent church leaders point to the denominational church as an unredeemable bureaucratic structure that stifles innovation and is inseparably bound to modernism, I have a different experience. I have found denominational congregations to be less hierarchical because they encourage leadership of women more and have a longevity that allows the community to thrive long after the pastor is gone.

Carol makes a crucial distinction between the empire-building so pervasive in some corners of the church and the community-building she advocates. She offers a prophetic critique of the “bigger-is-always-better” mentality that has shaped much of evangelicalism—and the broader culture—for the past 50 years:

From our produce to our political power to our pulpits, we decided that bigger is better. We opted for less personal contact. We began to lose sight of what is good for our communities and began to focus on the individual. However, the bigger-is-always-better attitude left us empty, anxious, and depressed.

Denominations, for all their faults, offer a means of accountability and stability. It’s harder to build your own empire within the confines of a denomination. There’s a reason why there are fewer “celebrity pastors” in mainline churches. We understand that, as Carol writes, “When a church rises up around a charismatic leader, the congregation tends to dissolve when that leader leaves.” Outside of a denomination, there’s nothing to hold someone like Mark Driscoll accountable to charges of abuse, because he is an empire unto himself. Denominations value continuity, accountability, and inclusion. And as Carol can attest, there is often more follow-through on these commitments within denominational structures than outside them.

“Words create reality.”

Carol’s book is not about helping aging mainliners come to grips with modern technology. (Though for anyone who’s wondering how to bring their church into the digital age, she has lots of great advice to share.)

Reframing Hope envisions something bigger. It calls for a renewal of both the medium and the message. Carol understands the power of narrative for igniting change. And, dang, she can preach. One of my favorite extended passages in the book comes from the chapter on retelling the message:

Scripture reminds us that we have the power to bless and to curse (Gen. 12:3). This may seem like a foreign concept, but any father who hears the words “I love you” from his child knows the power of a blessing. The words create a reality. Parents also often have the power to bless and curse, and indeed we parents are typically the first ones to create our children’s realities. Our answers to their question of “Who do you say that I am?” have a lasting effect on them, for better or worse… We are a storied people. Our lives are formed by the truths and lies we’ve been told throughout the years.

In the same way, as people of the Word, Christians are connected through words to a larger history and tradition. In the story of creation, we recall how God created out of nothing, through the use of words… The Word then became the history of a people. As the story unfolds, we read of the fiery and comforting words of the prophets. Words are eaten. Words blacken the mouth. Words become as sweet as honey. Words are set in stone and carried around in a dramatic covenantal ark. They are lost and they are found.

Then we read how Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, dwelt among us. Over the centuries, as the church formed and continues to form, the Word becomes central to our lives. We say and hear, “This cup is the new covenant,” and we know these words signify a new reality, a new relationship of promise, forgiveness, and reconciliation…

All of these words bind us to a story, a purpose, a community; they form as they inform us.

What we need, Carol writes, is to recover a narrative understanding of the Bible. We need people “who can present the facts [of our story] within a context and with an emotional impact.” We need to recover the art of sharing the good news—that is, sharing our story.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing mainline churches is that we are too easily fixated on what Carol calls a message of deprivation: “Come to our church because we need more people, money, and energy (which doesn’t sound like good news at all).”

She continues:

If churches can develop and communicate a narrative that invites people to enter—if they are places where a person can slip into the pew for an hour of internal wrestling, where she can mentally question everything that happens, and at the end of it, she knows that such questioning is okay—then people will attend again… It’s an extensive, tough, and beautiful process. And it is one of the great things about being the church.

That’s one of the most important things that I took from Carol’s book. She reminded me of some of the genuinely good things that are still true about the church, while prophetically inviting us into a new era of ministry.

Next up: the other book already on my shelf, The Gospel of Ruth by Carolyn Custis James

My new reading list

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Last week I decided to get real about the patriarchy on my bookshelf after I realized that nearly all the theological and religious books I own were written by men. It started when I shared a list of 10 books that have stayed with me over the years. There was not one female writer among them.

There is no use in men like me claiming to be “allies” or advocates of gender equality if we’re so busy speaking for women that we don’t bother listening to them. If all I am is another voice speaking in their place, then nothing’s really changed, has it? Being an “ally” might make me feel better about myself, but it will accomplish little else until I allow myself to start being shaped by their voices.

So I decide to ask for help… and you responded, big time. I got dozens of suggestions through email, blog comments, tweets, Facebook messages… more than 70 names in total, from all ends of the theological spectrum. Not all of them fit neatly into my original criteria of being theological or religious writers. But all of them are important voices, well worth listening to.

Below is a list of the recommendations people shared. It’s likely I missed a few, but I tried to keep track of all the ones that I saw. The other day, I spent a few hours learning about each author and made note of one or two books by each. (Or three, in some cases where I just couldn’t narrow it down.) If you’re like me, some of the names will be familiar to you; some won’t. Probably 80% of the names below were new to me.

I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to get through the entire list, but I intend to make a start. Namely, with 10 books—a new list of 10 books that I hope will stay with me over the coming years. (I’ll share that list at the end of this post.)

Some of these authors fall safely within my comfort zone. Some are sure to challenge me in interesting and perhaps uncomfortable ways. But that’s the whole point of reading, isn’t it? To step outside your own limited perspective and allow others to shape it, even if you don’t end up fully agreeing with them? How much of our impoverished discourse can be traced to the fact that we tend to hear only the voices that sound like our own?

This is my first small step in trying to change that, in trying not to be as much of an “ally” as a listener. To every one of you who took the time to recommend an author (or several, in some cases), thank you. And if, like me, your reading has felt a bit one-dimensional, I hope you’ll take a moment to peruse the names below. You might find something that sets you on a new journey, that gives you a new perspective…

Religious and theological writers

Karen Armstrong, comparative religion
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
The Case for God

Karen Baker-Fletcher, systematic theology
Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective
Sisters of Dust, Sisters of Spirit: Womanist Wordings on God and Creation

Nancy Beach, church ministry
Gifted to Lead: The Art of Leading as a Woman in the Church

Sarah Bessey, writer
Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women

Jeannine Brown, hermeneutics, New Testament studies
Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics   

Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor
Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint

Cynthia Bourgeault, Episcopal priest
The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity
The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity

Laurene Bowers, UCC minister
Becoming a Multicultural Church

Barbara Brown-Taylor, Episcopal priest
An Altar in the World
Learning to Walk in the Dark
Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith

Kelly Brown-Douglas, religion
Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective

Diana Butler-Bass, Christian history
Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening
A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story

Sister Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun
The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century

Lynn Cohick, biblical studies
The Story of God Bible Commentary: Philippians

Carlene Cross, writer
Fleeing Fundamentalism

Sarah Cunningham, writer
Beyond the Broken Church

Carolyn Custis-James, writer
The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules
Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women

Mary Daly, feminist philosophy
Beyond God the Father

Lillian Daniel, UCC minister
When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough

Marva Dawn, theology
Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down

Denise Dombkoski Hopkins, biblical theology
Journey Through the Psalms

Musa Dube, feminist theology
Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible

Margaret A. Farley, ethics
Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

Cherith Fee Nordling, theology
Knowing God by Name: A Conversation Between Elizabeth A. Johnson and Karl Barth

Sister Maureen Fiedler, activist
Rome Has Spoken…: A Guide to Forgotten Papal Statements and How They Have Changed Through the Centuries

Katie Geneva Cannon, theology
Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader

Beverly Harrison, Christian social ethics
Justice in the Making: Feminist Social Ethics

Rachel Held Evans, writer
A Year of Biblical Womanhood
Faith Unraveled
Searching for Sunday

Carter Heyward, Episcopal priest
Saving Jesus From Those Who Are Right

Joyce Hollyday, UCC minister
Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us
Then Shall Your Light Rise: Spiritual Formation and Social Witness

Carol Howard-Merritt, practical theology, PCUSA pastor
Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation
Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, ethics and theology
En La Lucha: Elaborating a Mujerista Theology

Karen Jobes, hermeneutics
Letters to the Church: A Survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles
Invitation to the Septuagint

Elizabeth Johnson, theology
She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse
Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God

Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, theology
Refiner’s Fire: A Religious Engagement With Violence

Anne Lamott, writer
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

Amy-Jill Levine, New Testament studies
Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi
The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus
The Jewish Annotated New Testament

Henrietta Mears, Christian educator
What the Bible Is All About

Sara Miles, founder of The Food Pantry
City of God: Faith in the Streets
Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion

Rita Nakashima Brock, theology and culture
Proverbs From Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us
Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire

Carol Newsom, Old Testament studies
The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations
Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition  

Elaine Pagels, religion
Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation

Christine Pohl, Christian social ethics
Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition

Kwok Pui Lan, theology
Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology

Rosemary Radford Reuther, theology
Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology

Sharon Ringe, hermeneutics, UCC minister
Biblical Interpretation: A Roadmap

Jane Rogers Vann, practical theology
Gathered Before God: Worshiped-Centered Church Renewal

Sarah Ruden, classical literature, biblical linguistics
Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time

Cheryl Sanders, Christian ethics, Church of God pastor
Empowerment Ethics for a Liberated People
Ministry at the Margins: The Prophetic Mission of Women, Youth, & the Poor

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, theology
Democratizing Biblical Studies: Toward and Emancipatory Educational Space

Angela D. Sims, ethics, black church studies
Religio-Political Narratives in the United States

Dorothee Sölle, theology
Dorothee Sölle: Essential Writings

Marti Steussy, hermeneutics
Chalice Introduction to the Old Testament

Elsa Tamez, theology
The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works Is Dead
Bible of the Oppressed
The Amnesty of Grace: Justification by Faith From a Latin American Perspective

Phyllis Tickle, writer
The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why

Krista Tippett, broadcaster
Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters—and How We Talk About It
Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit

Maren Tirabassi, UCC pastor
From the Psalms to the Cloud: Connecting to the Digital Age

Emilie M. Townes, ethics
In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness

Renita J. Weems, theology
Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible
Listening for God: A Minister’s Journey Through Silence and Doubt

Sharon Welch, religion and society
A Feminist Ethic of RISK

Delores Williams, theology
Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk

Sister Miriam Therese Winter, theology
Paradoxology: Spirituality in a Quantum Universe

Hildegard of Bingen
Scivias

Teresa of Avila
The Way of Perfection

Other writers

Hannah Arendt, political theory
On Revolution

Carol Gilligan, psychology
In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development

bell hooks, writer and activist
All About Love
Feminism Is for Everybody
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

Susan Ludvigson, poet
Escaping the House of Certainty

Sue Monk Kidd, novelist
The Secret Life of Bees

Alice Notley, poet
Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2005

Kay Ryan, poet
The Best of It: New and Selected Poems

Cheryl Strayed, writer
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

Jean Valentine, poet
Door in the Mountain: New Collected Poems, 1965-2003

Alice Walker, author and activist
The Color Purple

The first 10…

Finally, here are the first 10 books I’m choosing to read from this list. I’ve tried to aim for a mix of authors representing different theological and ethnic backgrounds. I’ve chosen some books that naturally appeal to me, as well as some I might not have picked up on my own. And to honor those who responded to my earlier post, I tried to choose at least one from every list someone was kind enough to share with me. (It helped that there was a some overlap between lists.)

Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Learning to Walk in the Dark An Altar in the World, by Barbara Brown Taylor
(Late substitution based on multiple recommendations)

A People’s History of Christianity, by Diana Butler-Bass

The Gospel of Ruth, by Carolyn Custis-James

Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, by Musa Dube

Reframing Hope, by Carol Howard-Merritt

The Misunderstood Jew, by Amy-Jill Levine

Saving Paradise, by Rita Nakashima Brock

Paul Among the People, by Sarah Ruden

Sisters in the Wilderness, by Delores Williams

Where are all the women? What my bookshelf says about the continuing effects of patriarchy

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The other day, I did one of those “10 books that stayed with me” status updates on Facebook. It’s a thing that’s been going around for a while now. (After more than 130,000 such lists were tallied, Harry Potter came out on top, in case you were wondering.)

For my list, I chose to highlight 10 books that had a lasting theological impact. Later that day, one of my friends gently pointed out what, in hindsight, seems like a glaring omission:

There were no women on my list.

I have to be honest. I was a little embarrassed when I realized this. And alarmed. What bothered me even more than the fact that there were no women was the fact that I hadn’t even noticed my failure to include any.

I’m committed to gender equality. I’ve written about my theological journey from complementarianism to egalitarianism, and how it’s impacted my marriage on a practical level. I’ve shared how we’re trying to raise our daughter without all the baggage of patriarchy—writing about it here, here, here, and here, for example.

But a theoretical commitment to something can blind you to the ways in which your behavior is still shaped by its antithesis.

I can pen a rebuttal to Dave Ramsey’s caricature of the poor, for example. Yet I haven’t always honored my responsibility to be openhanded toward those in need.

I can write passionately about racial reconciliation in Ferguson. But I am not unscathed by generations of prejudice.

I can flaunt my egalitarian credentials on the interwebs—without even realizing how bad I’ve been at listening to the voices of women.

A theoretical opposition to patriarchy doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve stopped perpetuating it.

—//—

After reading my friend’s comment on Facebook, I scanned my collection of theology books. Then I started counting.

Only one was written by a woman.

Hoping for a better result, I expanded my search to include popular religious titles as well as academic ones. True, I’ve got books by Sarah Cunningham (Dear Church) and Carolyn Custis James (The Gospel of Ruth) on my shelf—and books by Rachel Held Evans (A Year of Biblical Womanhood) and Sarah Bessey (Jesus Feminist) on my Kindle. Rachel and Sarah in particular have shaped my thinking in meaningful and profound ways.

But the balance was still overwhelmingly tilted in one direction: 89% of the religious books on my shelf (or phone) were written by men.

Now, there are likely a number of reasons for the imbalance. My friend who first pointed it out suggested it had something to do with the church background I grew up in. True enough. When I decided to go to seminary, I was encouraged to avoid schools that accepted women into ordination-track degree programs—the assumption being that this was an indicator of “dangerous” liberal tendencies. But I have long since shifted my horizons.

Some of it surely has to do with this unsettling stat: only a quarter of all PhDs in theology go to women (HT Richard Beck, Kieran Healy). Which means at least 75% of those who are in a position to write academic theological books are male. I find it hard to believe this is because women just aren’t into theology, when there is a far more likely explanation: women have been told in various ways—some implicit, some more direct—that theology is a man’s pursuit.

Even in churches that are committed to gender equality, the vast majority of lay and ordained leaders are male—including two thirds of the employed priests in my own denomination. All of which is why, while writing for Elizabeth Esther’s blog last year, Stephanie Drury concluded:

Straight [white] men in Christian culture simply don’t… examine the ways in which they are sexist, and this is the most difficult factor in the move towards wholeness.

Besides, none of this changes the fact that the ratio of women to men on my bookshelf is worse than the ratio at academic institutions. I have no excuse.

As Maggi Dawn, a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, writes:

There are so many women with interesting things to say, some writing about feminism but many more simply writing about areas of theology that used to be thought of as a male preserve—or, the earlier you go, writing theology against the culture that denied them access to what was assumed to be a male preserve.

She even came up with a reading list—without having to put too much thought into it—of female voices in theology. Voices that many of us just aren’t listening to.

This has to change. My bookshelf has to change.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’m going to be working from Maggi Dawn’s list to expand my horizons. Reading books by female theologians will not automatically make me a better specimen of gender equality. But it might help me to listen better to female voices. And doing so will enrich my theological perspective.

Maggi Dawn’s list of female theological voices can be found here (HT Laura Everett). What books or authors would you add to the list?

UPDATE  
I received dozens of suggestions in response to this post, which I’ve compiled here, along with a list of the next 10 books I’m going to read:

MY NEW READING LIST

We need feminism because my daughter thinks most TV shows are for boys

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Most weekday mornings, I get my daughter up. It’s a frenzied ritual of brushing teeth, combing hair, trying to persuade her that wool sweaters aren’t the greatest choice for the middle of summer (even in Michigan), and finally—after a series of delicate and sometimes tense negotiations—helping her get dressed in her chosen outfit. Then I make my way to my basement office and start my day.

Weekends are a different story. The two of us head downstairs together—usually before her mom and baby brother get up. We eat cereal and she picks something for us to watch on TV. Some mornings it’s Pingu. Sometimes she asks for “something on Hulu.” (I think she mostly just likes saying the word Hulu.) Sometimes it’s Phineas and Ferb. (Which, I’ll be honest… I have mixed feelings about, mostly because of how the older sister is portrayed, reinforcing the popular caricature of sisters as bossy, controlling, and otherwise inept. Not the picture of sisterhood that I want to paint for Elizabeth, who, as a new big sister, already has the makings of being a wonderful teacher and mentor to her younger brother.)

A few weekends ago, we were well into our Saturday ritual. She was about to choose something to watch when a look of apprehension came over her not-quite-four-year-old face.

“Daddy,” she asked, “is this show for boys?”

I was totally caught off guard. Where did my daughter get the idea that certain shows are “for boys”—and that she can’t watch them? It certainly wasn’t from us. My wife and I are intentional about teaching her that girls and boys are equal, that nothing is off limits to her because of her gender.

We go to a church where women can serve equally alongside men. Our current priest happens to be a man, but women hold a number of visible leadership roles—on staff, on the vestry (think: elder board), and at almost every level of ministry.

When we watch sports (which isn’t that often), we try to watch a balance of men’s and women’s events. We’ve even talked about taking Elizabeth to Canada next year to see the Women’s World Cup, if we can swing it.

When it comes to TV shows, we look for ones with strong female characters. But we don’t push our daughter toward stereotypically “girly” shows. Nor do we discourage her from watching shows that are supposedly “for boys.”

So where did she get this notion? What gave my daughter the idea that she can’t watch some shows because they’re for boys only? Maybe she got it from TV itself.

Yesterday, Rachel Held Evans shared 35 compelling reasons why we all need feminism. Many of them are sobering, like the fact that 1 in 4 American women experience some form of domestic violence. Or the fact that 80% of 10 year-old girls say they’ve gone on a diet.

Ten year-old girls, already being told their bodies are the only thing of value they have—and even then, only if they’re the “right” size.

Rachel shared another reason which, at first glance, may seem a bit more trivial by comparison. That is, until you consider the impact it has on a young girl’s perspective. In 2011, only 11% of the protagonists in films were female. This figure is only slightly better for children’s TV shows. Yes, there’s Dora and Kai-Lan. But there’s also Bob the Builder, Daniel Tiger, Super Why, Elmo, Phineas and Ferb, and a host of other lead characters who are male.

One study found that only 30% of the characters in children’s shows are female. And female characters are far more likely to be sexualized and/or presented in a way that glamorizes a narrow and unhealthy notion of beauty—even in children’s shows. (Case in point: Sofia the First.) To quote the study, “Females, when they are on screen, are still there to provide eye candy to even the youngest viewers.”

Even in 2014, the overwhelming message of children’s entertainment is that girls like my daughter are little more than props in a man’s world.

(So much for feminism being a capitulation to the dominant culture.)

That Saturday, I told my daughter she didn’t have to worry about whether the show she wanted to watch was “for boys” or not. If she wanted to watch it (and as long as there wasn’t any legitimate reason not to—e.g. violence), then it was for her.

The thing is, I shouldn’t have to tell her this.

Patriarchy is not natural. Our daughters are not born into this world thinking they’re inferior or subordinate to men. They get that idea because that’s what the dominant culture tells them.

It’s what we tell them in our movies and TV shows.

It’s what we tell them when we objectify their bodies to sell everything from hamburgers to sex.

It’s what we tell them when we tolerate a 23% wage gap for a woman doing the same job as man.

It’s what we tell them when we trivialize and dismiss the reality of sexual assault—something a quarter of all female college students face.

Patriarchy isn’t natural. It’s learned. And it’s time we start telling our daughters a better story.

Photo credit: Aaron Escobar

Listening to other voices: it won’t just happen by accident

Photo by OregonDOT on Flickr

There was a time, even after I had embraced gender equality, when most of the voices I listened to — theologians, bloggers, etc. — were men. I don’t think I planned it that way. But years of believing that only men could talk authoritatively about the Bible had conditioned me to tune out female voices. Even after I had shed my support for patriarchy, its effect on me lingered.

There was a time when I could write about gays and the Bible without listening to a single LGBT voice. Oh, I might interact with a sound bite or a caricature of their views, but I wouldn’t stop long enough to hear how they read scripture or what their experiences in the church were like. I certainly wouldn’t stop long enough to allow them to become human to me.

There was a time when I served on a mostly white student leadership committee on a college campus that was 85% white, in a town that was 95% white. An incident where some locals drove their confederate flag-adorned pickup truck through campus, looking for minorities to intimidate, prompted us to finally address the challenges minority students faced on our campus and what could be done to help. Before long, it became obvious we didn’t have a clue, and we would remain oblivious until we started including and listening to and minority voices who could tell us about their experience.

Most of us gravitate toward those who sound like us, think like us, look like us. That’s why liberals watch MSNBC and conservatives watch Fox News. For those of us who, by virtue of being white and male, have enjoyed most of the power and privilege for longer than anyone can remember, this habit of tuning out other voices is more entrenched than we realize. That’s why we often end up sitting in conference halls talking to ourselves about everyone else and scratching our heads in befuddlement whenever someone complains about a “lack of diversity.”

Whether it’s CBMW assembling a group of mostly white married men to talk about singlehood, womanhood, and homosexuality, or a seemingly more progressive venue failing to include a respectable number of women on the main stage, we’re not always good at welcoming (much less engaging) other voices.

This isn’t necessarily about quotas, though Jenny Baker makes a good argument that quotas may sometimes be necessary to disrupt long-established patterns of exclusion. But how are we going to bring other voices to the table, unless we are intentional about it?

For me, this meant making a conscious choice to start listening to more female voices, to start reading more female bloggers. If I’m going to write about patriarchy, surely I ought to listen to those who’ve felt its impact the most. Surely I should listen before I presume the right to speak myself.

It’s also meant building bridges into the gay Christian community, listening to their stories, allowing their perspectives and experiences to inform mine. It’s meant not presuming I know what it’s like to walk in anyone else’s shoes, at least not until I’ve walked alongside them for a bit.

And the thing is, this choice to start listening to other voices has enriched me in more ways than I could have anticipated. These amazing voices have sharpened me countless times, so that when I decide to say something about issues that affect them more than me, I might (hopefully) contribute something worthwhile to the conversation, rather than just pontificating for the sake of hearing my own voice.

I still have a long way to go in this journey. There are other voices who deserve to be heard. But they won’t be heard unless we are intentional about creating space for them.

Until then, we’ll be the ones who are missing out.

How do you make space to hear those whose voices are different from yours?

My daughter deserves better than 19%

Photo by Accretion Disc on Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/befuddledsenses/3473942291)

Five to one.

That’s the ratio of male to female speakers at major Christian conferences in the US, according to an eye-opening analysis by Jonathan Merritt. Only 19% of speakers at these events are women.

As Jonathan writes, “Just when it appears we’ve crossed the rubicon on gender equality, we realize we haven’t.”

Indeed.

It all started with a Twitter exchange between Rachel Held Evans and organizers of The Nines conference. The male-to-female gap is even wider at The Nines: 25 to 1.

rhe tweet

A similar problem exists across the pond: fewer than 25% of main speakers at Christian conferences in the UK are women, according to one blogger’s tally.

Setting aside misgivings about the whole Christian conference culture in the first place — the idolization of celebrity pastors, the endless chasing after “the next big thing,” etc. — this is a problem.

And it’s not just conferences. Only 10% of senior pastors of Protestant churches are women — and most of them are in mainline denominations like mine. At my former seminary, an interdenominational school with Baptist roots, only a third of students are women (that in itself is likely an improvement from when I was there), and 89% of the faculty are male.

All of which makes it easy for conference organizers to throw up their hands and say, “Hey, it’s not our fault there aren’t more female leaders to invite.”

Well, yeah… if you buy into the mindset that says the only pastors worth listening to are those with the biggest churches and the biggest platforms. (Even at just 10% of the senior pastor population, there are still several thousand female pastors out there.)

Besides, to quote a thoughtful post from UK blogger Jenny Baker:

People who say ‘forget about gender, just pick the best person for the task’ show a stunning lack of awareness of firstly, male privilege, and secondly, how Christian conferences are put together. People tend to invite who they know, who they’ve heard recently, who has published a book, who their friends recommend/blog about/are reading, who has spoken at a similar event. If you want to change the status quo, you need to be aware of the imbalance and you need to be intentional about changing it.

In other words, everyone needs to own the problem. Everyone needs to be involved in changing it, rather than just pointing fingers or waging a “chicken-versus-egg” defense.

And when I say “everyone,” that means those of us who’ve already embraced gender equality, too. It’s easy to think we’ve “arrived” because of our support for women pastors, priests and bishops. But in my experience, this attitude can blind us to subtler, more entrenched forms of sexism in our midst and in ourselves. The “boys’ club” mentality that still exists in many of our churches and Christian organizations, even the “progressive” ones. The tokenism of appointing one or two female leaders while the overwhelming majority of leadership remains male. It’s one thing to articulate a vision of gender equality; it’s quite another to actually practice it.

This is not a problem “out there” somewhere. Gender inequality is something I have to own, too.

So when you hear someone raising a concern about gender inequality in our midst, listen. Don’t dismiss them as “shrill” or “divisive.” Don’t tell them to stop whining and definitely don’t tell them to “man up.” (You probably don’t need to compare them to Mark Driscoll either, as The Nines organizer Todd Rhoades did in his Twitter exchange with Rachel Held Evans. Which is just, um… really?)

The bottom line is, my daughter deserves better than 19%. She deserves better than a 10% chance at becoming a senior pastor or a 4% chance at becoming a Fortune 500 CEO someday, purely on the basis of her gender.

When Rachel Held Evans calls out gender inequality at Christian conferences (or anywhere else, for that matter), what may sound “shrill” or “divisive” to some — to me it sounds like someone demanding a better world for my daughter. And I like the sound of that.

How I won’t be getting a shotgun when my daughter starts dating, after all

Yes, this is a real thing.

Yes, this is a real thing.

Yesterday Rachel Held Evans shared a question from a reader wondering how to teach her daughter modesty without giving her a complex — that is, “without it becoming about hem lines, guilt and worthlessness.”

As the parent of a 3 year-old girl, I wish I had the answer. But there’s one thing I’ve decided to stop doing, in the hopes of helping my daughter cultivate a healthy view of herself, which I shared in a comment on Rachel’s blog.

I’ve stopped making jokes about how I’m going to invest in a shotgun collection when my daughter starts dating.

Jokes like these are just a bit of fun, right? A bit of fatherly bravado masking the fact that we’re in over our heads when it comes to raising daughters? A harmless coping mechanism for dads who are secretly terrified their daughters will meet a younger version of themselves someday?

There’s a whole cottage industry selling souvenir shirts with messages like…

Guns don’t kill people…
dads with pretty daughters do

and…

D.A.D.D.
Dads Against Daughters Dating
(Shoot the first one that comes around,
and the word will spread.)

But what message are we sending our daughters when we (jokingly) threaten to shoot their boyfriends? That violence is OK? That they’re just another possession? That there’s something wrong with them if we DON’T have to fend off legions of prospective suitors?

Consider some of the responses on Rachel’s blog

“I grew up hearing that stuff, and I hated it.”

“As a teenager who never had a boyfriend, it always made me uncomfortable when family friends made jokes about the boys lining up and my parents having to fight them off… I definitely internalized the message that since the boys WEREN’T chasing after me, there was something wrong with me.”

Words — even those said in jest — mean something. Words have consequences. They shape our worldview. They impact our children’s view of themselves in ways we don’t even realize.

When my daughter hears me say I’m going to need a shotgun to fend off her future love interests, what I’m teaching her is that her body is something dangerous, something to be locked away, something to be ashamed of. I’m telling her that she’s my property and not her own person.

You may say I’m overreacting. But the fact is, for centuries women have been told they’re someone else’s property — their fathers’, their husbands’. Women have been told their bodies are something to be ashamed of, something dangerous, something to be kept under lock and key — most recently, by an evangelical purity culture which compares girls who’ve lost their virginity to cups of water contaminated by someone else’s spit.

Of course I want to protect my daughter from those who would treat her like an object. Of course I want her to make good choices about who she spends her time with and how close she allows them to get. Of course I want her to know that her worth does not depend on her willingness to flaunt her body like an Abercrombie & Fitch model.

But I also want her to know that her body isn’t something dirty or shameful. I want her to know she isn’t the property of any man — including me.

Make no mistake: the thought of my daughter dating someone someday terrifies me. But I’d rather send her into the world with a healthy view of herself than keep her locked away, while she develops a complex about her body and her sense of worth.

Which is why I won’t be investing in that shotgun collection after all.

Why I don’t plan on “giving my daughter away”

Photo by Mance on Flickr

“Who gives this woman?”

I never really thought about this question until recently. Until I had a daughter.

It’s taken for granted as a normal part of a “traditional” wedding. It was part of mine. And if you were married in a Christian church, chances are it was a part of yours, too.

But of course, no one asked who gave me away to be married. Only my wife.

Maybe for most people this question is an innocent affirmation of the special bond that often exists between dads and their daughters. (I certainly hope to have that kind of bond with Elizabeth for the rest of my life.)

But what does it say to the woman about to be married?

“Who gives this woman?” implies ownership.

It suggests that I own my daughter. That she’s my property. That she is mine to give.

The ceremonial response — traditionally, the father says, “I do” — implies that I’m the authorized spokesperson for my family. Sometimes it’s broadened to “her mother and I do.” But still it’s the father, the male, the paterfamilias, speaking on behalf of his family.

Am I reading too much into it? It’s worth noting that “who gives this woman?” didn’t find its way into our wedding ceremonies by accident. In a more patriarchal era, marriage involved a transfer of ownership. The bride went from being under her father’s authority to that of her new husband. She did not spend a moment outside the authority, control, or headship of a man.

And for some Christians, that’s still the case. You only have to read the stories of women who grew up around Christian patriarchy, fundamentalism, or the Quiverfull movement to realize this notion of marriage is alive and well in many corners of the church today. This kind of thinking has a cost: abuse, exploitation, loss of faith. All stemming from modern-day patriarchy.

OK, but thankfully not everyone accepts fundamentalism or patriarchy. In which case, is “who gives this woman?” a harmless vestige of a bygone era? I’m not so sure. Because words don’t just express a worldview; they help shape it.

If men continue to use language characterizing women as objects or possessions, is it any wonder that women are treated like objects or possessions? Is our failure to respect women as people made equally in God’s image really that big of a surprise?

All of which is why I’m not going to “give my daughter away,” assuming she decides to get married someday. Because the truth is, I don’t own her to begin with.

For this short season of life, my wife and I are entrusted with our daughter’s care, nurture, and protection. But she is her own person. She is not a possession. She is not and never will be the property of anyone else.

If she decides to get married, I will give whatever blessing she wants to her and the person she weds. I will pledge my love and support to both of them. I will beam with pride and give thanks for the bond we’ve enjoyed — and for the new one she is forging.

But she is not mine to give away. And I’m starting to think that coming to terms with this reality is one of the most important things I can do for her.

What do you think? How does the idea of “giving our daughters away” affect our view of women?