I told my daughter she can do anything. She didn’t believe me.

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Tonight before bed, my 6-year-old daughter was telling me about a boys-vs-girls competition at school today, which the girls won. I responded by saying, “Yay, girls rule!”

She cheerfully joined in at first, but then she stopped. Her expression grew more serious, and she said, “But not now, because Donald Trump rules.”

I told her Donald Trump doesn’t rule over everything, and he certainly doesn’t rule over her, and that someday a girl WILL be president.

She didn’t believe me.

She looked at me with an expression I have never seen from her before: a lack of faith.

I’m sure it can change. I’ll do everything I can to see that it does. I hope it’s enough. But right now, my daughter doesn’t believe girls rule. She doesn’t believe a girl can be president. She doesn’t believe women can do anything.

I told her there is nothing a boy can do that a girl can’t.

But she didn’t believe me.

To be clear: we haven’t talked about the election since I first broke the news to her that Donald Trump won. Our family has carried on as we normally do. And most of the time, my daughter is her same, normal, free-spirited self.

But it is there—the pain of being told that girls don’t measure up. That girls are second-class, less than, subordinate. And not just because of Tuesday’s election. I wish that’s all it were. But really, that’s just the latest thing.

My daughter is only six years old, and she’s already been told by the world around her that there are some things she can’t do, simply because she’s a girl. That she must take a backseat to the boys in her world.

This seed was planted long before a p*ssy-grabbing misogynist named Donald Trump received 60 million votes. But the lie dug itself a little deeper into my daughter’s heart this week, and it kills me.

So I did the only thing I could think of. I told her that I believe in her. That I am for her. That I will always be on her side. And that I think she’d make a wonderful president someday.

I’m with her.

Image: Charlotte Cooper / CC BY 2.0

What I learned about male privilege the night I talked to my daughter about the election

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I thought I was prepared the other night, when I talked to my first-grade daughter about this year’s presidential election.

I was ready for her questions about Donald Trump—“the mean one,” as she describes him. At just six years old, she’s already discerned what has somehow eluded 40-45 percent of the American electorate: Donald Trump is a bully.

I was ready to talk about Hillary Clinton—how, if elected, she will be the first woman to serve as our president. “Yeah, yeah! Go girls!” my daughter shouted at one point in our conversation.

I was prepared to talk about what a big deal this year’s election is. I was prepared to talk about shattering the glass ceiling—because even at six years old, my daughter has already encountered the twisted, perverse notion that there are some things girls cannot do, simply because they are girls.

But I wasn’t prepared for her reaction when she asked me who I was going to vote for. I wasn’t prepared for the apprehension in her voice. I wasn’t prepared for the relief that swept across her face when I told her that, yes, I was going to vote for a woman to be our next president.

It was as if the world had already planted in her heart the idea that boys will only ever vote for boys.

I wonder where on earth she got that idea.

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I wasn’t ready for it to come up again later that evening, as we were saying goodnight. Still not fully convinced, she asked me, “Daddy, have you ever voted for a girl before?”

Thanks in part to Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan, I at least had a decent answer to my daughter’s question.

But I still wasn’t ready for what she was about to teach me.

Next, my daughter asked what it means to be president or governor—what it means to be “in charge” of an entire country or state. (As far as bedtime stalling questions go, that was a pretty good one.)

So I began to explain, using the best 6-year-old language I could think of. And without even realizing it—without meaning to—I defaulted to masculine language.

He decides what laws will be passed.

He makes sure we have good roads and schools and things like that.

He works with the leaders of other countries, to make sure we get along.

It didn’t go unnoticed. After a few seconds, my daughter corrected me:

“Or SHE, daddy.”

(For those of you who think so-called “generic masculine” language is harmless.)

There it was. My white male privilege, on full display in front of my beloved 6-year-old daughter.

I believe the term is “busted.”

Me, a supposedly enlightened “progressive.”

Me, using language that centered myself and my gender. Language that automatically assumes people in power will look exactly like I do.

My daughter noticed. And it spoke volumes to her.

White male privilege is insidious.

This sort of language—the language I used with my daughter the other night—is an essential part of how we’ve kept marginalized groups—women, blacks, the LGBTQ community—from gaining more than a few token seats at the table, if that.

If I say “he” every time I talk about our elected officials, my daughter will grow up believing leadership is a masculine trait.

If she doesn’t see women leading our churches, running our businesses, serving in the highest offices—in other words, women being “assertive” and “ambitious” and all the other things women are told they aren’t supposed to be—then nothing, NOTHING, will ever change.

To put it another way, one female president isn’t nearly enough. Our job isn’t even close to being done until the day when there is nothing remarkable about women, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ community serving as commander-in-chief. Or running a business. Or standing in a pulpit.

Why have we made so little progress advancing the cause of women and other marginalized groups? Maybe it’s because people like me are clinging to a narrative that keeps us at the center.

When I cast my ballot tomorrow, I will take one small step toward changing that. But it won’t be the last.

Top image: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

This is what the tortured, twisted logic of patriarchy looks like

The police as God intended, according to Piper—with one exception...

The police as God intended, according to Piper—with one exception

The other day, John Piper fielded a question about whether women should be police officers. His response highlights the tortured logic necessary to make patriarchy “work” in the real world.

Worth noting: the woman asking is a complementarian. She believes, like Piper, that men lead and women follow. Yet she feels drawn to police work and therefore conflicted—presumably because her job would require her to exercise authority over men on a regular basis. She even promised to quit if she gets married someday and her husband objects to her line of work.

Most complementarians don’t go so far as to prohibit women from working—though they often discourage married women from doing so, and some do indeed go farther. (I once had a pastor who said in a sermon he didn’t think women should ever work outside the home, even if they were single. We left that church shortly after.)

Piper himself accepts there are “thousands of possible roles” women can fill in society. But this creates a problem for patriarchy: what about the many roles which might require a woman to exercise authority over a man?

It’s not just police officers.

What about being a college professor? Or a guidance counselor? Or an author? Or a city planner? Or an HR specialist?

What about being a scientist who presents her research at a professional conference and therefore “teaches” men? What about being a financial advisor telling men how to invest their money?

This is where patriarchy ties itself in knots because, on the one hand, it wants us to believe the allegedly subordinate status of women is universally applicable and not limited to a certain sphere, like the church or home. As Piper says in his response to the aspiring cop:

At the heart of mature manhood is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships. The postman won’t relate to the lady at the door the way a husband will, but he will be a man.

Leading—exercising authority over women—is “at the heart” of what it means to be a man, according to Piper. Yet even he must sense the extreme nature of this, because he immediately tries to qualify it so he can allow women to serve in at least some roles outside the home.

Piper concedes the folly of making a list of “acceptable” roles for women—not that others haven’t tried. Instead, he resorts to some breathtaking mental gymnastics in order to explain how a woman can exercise authority without really exercising authority:

If a woman’s job involves a good deal of directives toward men, they will need to be non-personal in general, or men and women won’t flourish in the long run in that relationship without compromising profound biblical and psychological issues. And conversely, if a woman’s relationship to a man is very personal, then the way she offers guidance and influence will need to be more non-directive.

According to Piper, a woman can exercise authority so long as it’s “non-directive” or “non-personal.”

He sees no problem with a woman designing traffic patterns, “deciding which streets are one-way, and therefore… controlling, in one sense, all the male drivers all day long,” because this kind of influence isn’t personal.

But if that same woman were to be a police officer standing on a street corner making sure those traffic patterns are followed? Then she would be violating Piper’s notion of manhood.

Now it’s personal, according to Piper. Now she’s offending a man’s “God-given sense of responsibility and leadership.” Now she’s controverting “God’s created order.”

How does that even make sense? How is that not an artificial distinction designed solely to maintain an unworkable system?

It’s funny, because complementarians like to accuse egalitarians of doing mental gymnastics in order to explain 1 Timothy 2:12—“I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man.” (There happen to be very good and, I think, convincing ways to interpret this passage from an egalitarian perspective. See here and here, for example.)

But what about the mental gymnastics necessary to maintain patriarchy, albeit in a slightly less terrible form?

Paul doesn’t say, “I do not permit a woman to assume authority over a man unless it’s non-direct or non-personal.” Piper has introduced an unfounded caveat to a text he claims to interpret more straightforwardly than the rest of us.

Piper says this is about being “submissive to the Bible,” but he can’t even follow his own rubric for interpreting it. (He also wants us to believe his is the counter-cultural view, something I addressed in a recent guest post on Jory Micah’s blog.)

Speaking of the Bible, if it’s wrong for a woman to exercise authority over a man, how do you explain the prophet Deborah instructing Barak—who was afraid to go into battle without her?

How do you explain Huldah instructing the high priest of Israel?

How do you explain women being the first to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection? (“He is has risen” is the foundation of all Christian teaching, after all.)

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How do you explain Priscilla instructing Apollos in the way of God?

Deborah and Huldah were nothing if not directive. Mary Magdalene and Priscilla were nothing if not personal.

Authority is authority, whether it’s directive or not, whether it’s personal or not. And when it comes to the biblical narrative, steeped though it is in a patriarchal world, we see women exercising bold, prophetic authority—in accord with God’s created order, not against it.

Photo by Dave Conner on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Why Russell Moore is right: racial injustice IS a gospel issue

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I worry a bit when we start labeling ever divisive matter a “gospel issue.” Surely not everything rises to this threshold. Surely if you play the “gospel” card too many times—if you argue that “the gospel is at stake” in practically every debate—pretty soon the word loses all meaning. It becomes little more than a rhetorical club for stifling debate, for insinuating that anyone who disagrees with you hates the baby Jesus.

Yet sometimes the gospel IS at stake. The other day, Russell Moore when he called racial injustice a “gospel issue.” And I think he was right.

That was the day we learned that Eric Garner’s killer would not face charges. One of the first responses I saw in my Twitter feed came from Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. It was a transcript of a radio show he recorded moments after the news broke.

His comments are well worth reading:

A government that can choke a man to death on video for selling cigarettes is not a government living up to a biblical definition of justice or any recognizable definition of justice.

What we need to do is to have churches that come together and know one another and are knitted together across these racial lines. I have gotten responses [to this]… that are right out of the White Citizen’s Council material from 1964 in my home state of Mississippi… people saying there is no gospel issue involved in racial reconciliation. Are you kidding me? There is nothing that is clearer in the New Testament [than] that the gospel breaks down the dividing walls that we have between one another.

If [this] is not a gospel issue, then I don’t know what is.

Russell Moore spoke not just for his tribe, but for the whole church. He spoke with prophetic urgency as he rightly declared that racial injustice is indeed a gospel issue.

It’s a gospel issue because the gospel Christ proclaimed is about more than just our personal relationship with God. It’s about our relationship with each other—and with all of creation, for that matter.

It’s the renewal of all things, the reconciliation of all things. The gospel destroys the dividing wall of hostility between people. It creates a new humanity; it knits together a new family where divisions based on ethnicity, caste, or gender are rendered not just obsolete but sinful.

This is what it means to be “in Christ.” You cannot embrace Christ without embracing his mission to remake the world, to destroy all the old barriers of sin and oppression and division.

Some theologians use the term “human flourishing” to describe this mission. Which to me is just another way of saying a world where everyone can breathe.

That’s what Christ’s mission is about. That’s why racial injustice is indeed a gospel issue. To swear allegiance to Christ is to commit yourself to this mission, period. To tolerate injustice, oppression, or exclusion—to turn a deaf ear on the cries emanating from marginalized communities—is to embrace an anti-gospel.

You cannot hate your neighbor and love God, as Dr. Moore eloquently reminded listeners in the wake of the Eric Garner non-indictment. And in case you’re thinking, I don’t hate my neighbor, remember this: the Bible equates apathy with hatred.

—//—

Yet if this is true when Eric Garner has the life choked from his body by a prejudiced and unaccountable police force, it is also be true when a gay teenager is bullied into suicide, whatever our understanding of sexual ethics might be. It is also true when women are relegated to second-class status in our homes and churches. What was it Martin Luther King, Jr. said?

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

In other words, we don’t get to choose which marginalized communities we embrace and which we leave out in the cold. We don’t get to choose which “dividing walls of hostility” to tear down and which ones to leave standing.

Either it’s the reconciliation of all things or not.

Russell Moore is right Racial injustice is a gospel issue. But it’s not the only one we should be concerned about.

Photo by Geraint Rowland on Flickr (text added to original) / CC BY-NC 2.0

Women in theology, book 2 of 10: The Gospel of Ruth

Yeah...it looked nothing like this.

Yeah…it looked NOTHING like this.

After realizing almost all the religious books I own were written by men, I decided to be more intentional about reading books by women. I asked for help from my readers, who recommended over 70 different authors. I chose 10 books to start with, representing authors from across the theological spectrum. A few weeks ago, I shared some reflections after finishing the first book on my list, Reframing Hope by Carol Howard Merritt.

This week, it’s on to the next book, The Gospel of Ruth.

A note about these posts… they’re not meant to be reviews. I don’t see it as my place to critique or judge the value of each book. I want to embrace the posture of a learner. My goal is to share how each book challenges, teaches, or inspires me.

41xqAd4R2+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Gospel of Ruth
by Carolyn Custis James

Of all the writers on my list, Carolyn is probably the most evangelical. As for why I chose her book next, well… that’s a little embarrassing. It’s one I already own but never bothered to read. A colleague gave it to me a few years back… and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since, collecting dust.

I couldn’t even be bothered to read the few female-authored religious books I did own. In this case, I was missing out in more ways than one. Carolyn Custis James’ book The Gospel of Ruth utterly changed my view of one of the greatest female characters in the Bible.

Carolyn may be better known for her other book, Half the Church, which looks at how women—who almost certainly comprise more than half the church—have been shut out from serving (and leading) in God’s kingdom, much to the detriment of us all.

I chose The Gospel of Ruth instead because, apart from the fact that I already own a copy, I don’t want to limit myself to books primarily about “women’s issues” (though I think it’s fair to say Half the Church is more than that). I want to experience the contributions women are making in the broader fields of theology, biblical interpretation, ethics, etc.

The Gospel of Ruth has plenty to say about women’s issues—in particular, the patriarchal gender stereotypes that color people’s interpretation of the Bible. Carolyn shows how the scriptures subvert these stereotypes at times. But The Gospel of Ruth is also a full-on, deep dive into the book of Ruth as whole. It’s not a commentary per se, but it provides a vital framework for interpreting Ruth just the same (and maybe even better than most commentaries do).

Carolyn shows how Ruth captures the essence of the gospel, centuries before an itinerant preacher from Galilee came along, proclaiming the kingdom of heaven. Along the way, Carolyn corrects some common misreadings of Ruth, like the view that her sister-in-law was somehow selfish or wrong to go back to her family. Or the notion that Ruth was clueless or bungling when she deviated from Naomi’s instructions about Boaz. (More on that in a minute.)

Ruth was courageous. She was relentless. She was resolute, determined to keep her vow to Naomi no matter the cost to herself. And she was shrewd, too.

Ruth was a woman in a man’s world. She was a widow. A foreigner descended from Israel’s archenemies, the Moabites. Yet when she spoke, one of the most powerful men in Bethlehem listened—and obeyed.

Carolyn helps us see how the characters in Ruth’s drama repeatedly break the rules of “appropriate” behavior for the sake of doing what’s right. Specifically, Ruth breaks the rules in order to do what’s right for Naomi…

  • Like when Ruth silences her mother-in-law by refusing to leave her side…
  • Or when Ruth boldly requests the rights of a harvester—well beyond what gleaners were entitled to by law—earning Boaz’s praise and enabling her to provide more than just scraps for Naomi…
  • Or when she charts her own course with Boaz, ignoring Naomi’s instructions along the way. Naomi simply wanted security for Ruth. (This was, after all, a brutally patriarchal world where widows faced unimaginable hardship, neglect, and exploitation.) Ruth wanted something more: a future for Naomi. Ruth broke all the rules when she proposed marriage and called on Boaz to go beyond his legal obligations (again) by acting as kinsman-redeemer for Naomi.

To put it another way, Ruth challenges Boaz to go beyond the Bible. “The letter of the law says, ‘Let them glean,’ ” Carolyn writes. “The spirit of the law says, ‘Feed them.’ ” Where Old Testament law only required landowners like Boaz to permit the poor to glean the corners of their fields, Ruth forced him to ask, “ ‘How big is a corner?’ ”

The book itself is an exercise in breaking the rules, simply by its presence in the canon. Don’t let its brevity fool you. Ruth is not a sideshow or a pit stop in the Old Testament narrative. It’s a pivotal moment in the story of how God turned a wandering band of nomads into a kingdom through which to bless the world. And at this crucial point, women take center stage. As Carolyn writes:

The book of Ruth breaks all the rules, as two unescorted women take command of the storyline and men recede into the background. Naomi and Ruth do not climb to this high point in the action on the backs of men. They get here on their own.

Perhaps most importantly, Carolyn de-romanticizes the story of Ruth. There is plenty of love in this book, but we trivialize the story when we reduce Ruth and Boaz to star-crossed lovers. As Carolyn shows in chapters 4-5 (which are worth the price of the book by themselves, even when it isn’t being discounted by Amazon), the driving question of Ruth is whether God’s hesed—his covenantal, sacrificial love, his vision for how we are to live for each other—has run out for Naomi.

Carolyn reminds us that submission runs both ways. When Ruth proposes to Boaz (honestly, it’s like she didn’t even read I Kissed Dating Goodbye), he responds, “Everything you have said, I will do for you.” Boaz submits to Ruth. In similar fashion, everything Ruth does, she does for Naomi. Submission is not unilateral. It’s not just for women. And it is not weakness. As Carolyn writes:

Ultimately the impact of submission means those with power over others give it up. Women grow strong and flourish as kingdom-builders. Children thrive and begin to realize their calling to give back. And slaves walk free, side by side in full equality with their Christian brothers who were once their masters.

Carolyn helped me to see how Ruth prefigures the gospel, envisioning a world where everyone submits to each other mutually in sacrificial, self-giving love. The gospel envisions a world where women and men share the same mission of extending God’s hesed to those for whom it’s run out.

Next up: it’s into unchartered territory (for me, anyway) with Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible by Dr. Musa W. Dube. 

Image credit: Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett / CC BY SA-3.0

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

books

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

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.

“Boys can be anything they want. Girls can be princesses.”

I don’t usually find flipping through the Christian book catalog to be an uplifting experience. Take the one that was waiting on my front porch this week…

There’s yet another children’s book reducing the gospel to a formula. There’s one reinforcing the notion of heaven as a disembodied reality “out there” somewhere.

There are Duck Dynasty Valentine’s Day cards. A whole section devoted to James Dobson. Amish fiction (or as a friend of mine likes to call it, Amish porn). The only thing missing was a picture of Joel Osteen blinding me with his shiny white teeth.

And then there was this.

IMG_7680A set of companion books by fiction author Karen Kingsbury: one for moms to read with their sons, called Whatever You Grow Up to Be, and another for dads to read with their daughters, called Always Daddy’s Princess.

On the face of it, the message for boys appears to be, “You can grow up to be whatever you want.” The message for girls: “You can be a princess.”

It may not be the author’s intent to limit boys and girls to these predefined roles. But do we really need another set of products perpetuating the notion (intentionally or not) that boys can choose their identity, while girls’ identity has been determined for them?

This gender stereotype is pervasive in our culture. If you don’t think so, try raising a daughter.

Try counting the number of children’s TV shows with a female lead — Dora the Explorer, for example — versus those with a male lead (along with, perhaps, the occasional female sidekick): Jake and the Never Land Pirates, Super Why, Caillou, Handy Manny, Justin Time. You get the idea.

Try fending off the Disney princess juggernaut which, for all the refreshing progress of recent films like Brave and Frozen, still rakes in billions teaching girls that their main source of value lies in their appearance and their desirability to men.

The church should be a refuge from this kind of thinking, not a co-conspirator. The church should be the one place where we actually behave like there’s no “male and female,” as the apostle Paul once wrote.

Now, my daughter loves pretending to be a princess. She insists on wearing a dress every day. We run through tights like there’s no tomorrow. And she wants to be a ballet dancer. (She also loves trucks and airplanes and thinks farting is hilarious, for what it’s worth.)

The fact that she likes dressing up as Cinderella doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll grow up thinking she’s inferior to men. But as a parent, I’m learning that I have to be intentional about reinforcing her equality. She’s only 3 years old, and already she’s made comments like, “Boys can do this, but girls can’t.”

This breaks my heart. It’s a sobering reminder of how our culture bombards girls with a message of inferiority, a distorted view of their own value. It’s a reminder of how, despite all our efforts, the propaganda of inequality still manages to get through to my daughter.

The irony is, those in the church who insist on a hierarchal distinction between women and men think they’re being countercultural, that they’re going against the grain of this world and that this somehow proves them right.

The reality is anything but. Those who think patriarchy is a virtue are unwitting accomplices to Disney’s princess-ification of the world. They’re simply dressing up our culture’s subjugation of women in religious garb.

And it’s time that stopped. My kids deserve better than another set of books telling boys they can be whatever they want, while girls should stick to being princesses.