Avoidance is like the dessert you promised yourself after your workout but then you end up not working out and then letting yourself have it anyway just because you really, really want it. This is my equivalent of unearned 10 pm chocolate cake, minus the calories. Oddly enough, I actually baked chocolate, white-chocolate chip cookies and didn’t enjoy them all that much which is extremely out of character for me. Generally speaking, if it’s filled with sugar, I like it; if it’s sugary chocolate then I love it and can’t walk away from it. So, I figure that what’s really eating at me is not my sweet tooth but a desire to actually bring a literary idea to completion this week. Bear with me on this one.
I’m about halfway through Beth Allison Barr’s ‘The Making of Biblical Womanhood.’ I get most of my book recommendations from The Holy Post and Faith Improvised podcasts. This is my way of keeping a light pulse on the Evangelical dog and pony show without consuming too much news or youtube videos. It’s also refreshing to read from experts who know how to thoughtfully articulate ideas rather than go on emotional rants. I have to say, it’s been a fantastic read thus far. She has an earnest and warm literary tone that makes absorbing some of the startling information she puts forth far easier. For a non-fiction historical narrative, I find it unusually engaging and I think it’s because she has interwoven quite a bit of her own story into the book.
I admit that I am approaching this book from a rather odd perspective. I hail from a maternalistic culture. I was raised by a mother who acted like a feminist but echoed the contempt that her favorite conservative talk radio personalities had towards the feminist movement. She blamed ‘women’s lib’ for marginalizing men and making them feel unneeded, unwanted, and emotionally castrated. The rise in divorce rates, single motherhood, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, STDs, abortion, etc. could all be neatly explained by the ‘women’s lib’ war on the family and Christianity. And yet, she relentlessly pushed me to pursue the highest degree in my field, secure a high paying job with benefits, keep a secret stash of money hidden away from my husband, and always be ready to cut and run if and when he cheated, abused me, got arrested, or just disappeared one day. All of this amounted to a very confusing upbringing of mixed messaging. I don’t think I fully subscribe to either the complementarian or egalitarian viewpoints on gender. But I do appreciate Barr for pointing out the ways in which a complementarian viewpoint is often just a euphemism for patriarchy. I’m also not fully sold on male headship as GOD’s ideal…at least not as it has been presented to me over the years. All I can say is that I believe men and women are valued equally in GOD’s eyes but are distinct for reasons I don’t think any human is capable of fully understanding. Let’s get back to the book.
One of my favorite parts so far is her exploration of Paul’s writings from a different lens than I have ever heard presented from a pulpit or marriage retreat. She rightly begins the chapter by referencing the disdain that many of her female students express towards Paul or at least disdain for reading the so-called household codes. I have been firmly in this uncomfortable boat for well over a decade. My nerdy brain loves to enrich my reading with knowledge of the historical context, tone, and intended audience of a literary work. It makes a world of difference to be reminded that the intended audience of these letters (Ephesians, Colossians, Timothy, Titus, and Peter) are members of Roman house churches who must continue to operate under Roman law while also upholding their newfound Christian faith. It makes me think back to all of the times that I have been taught these verses as prescriptive for marriage rather than descriptive.
Under Roman law, wives and children were considered property and the man of the house often owned slaves. One of the most effective strategies that Barr utilizes is to contrast Paul’s words with those of Aristotle (he is often credited as one of the originators of the Roman household codes). I won’t spoil the effect by directly quoting it here but let’s just say that Aristotle was a first-class misogynist who basically described women as deformed men.
I have never heard anyone apart from non-Christians and confederates take the verses admonishing slaves to obey their masters and endure suffering with joy as an open endorsement for slavery, and yet, every time that I have been taught from these scriptures the texts pertaining to marriage and parenting are taken quite literally. This is not to say that there is no truth or wisdom to be gleaned from these verses. There is plenty. However, I think Barr is right to point out that way too much time, energy, and focus has been placed on trying to tell Christian women how and why to be submissive to their beloved, but imperfect husbands. Too many women have been told to submit to sinful behavior such as abuse, neglect, infidelity, and other extreme behaviors simply because they are the woman in the relationship. Some of us have been told to submit to bad choices or to verbally agree even though we disagree. None of this is good, right, or helpful. We need to spend far more time focusing on Paul’s intended meaning in these texts rather than on our own cultural biases.
I like how she concludes this section: all household members are invited to participate in the conversation and are encouraged to choose the most loving and Christlike way to interact with each other. Why in the world did I ever think that GOD endorsed Roman household codes as the standard of living for all Christian households? It was a manmade, sinful, exploitive, and (roll your eyes if you must but it needs to be said here) patriarchal system. Like so many other human constructs, we believe that because the Lord does not immediately tear it down that he necessarily agrees with or applauds it. I like how Dan Kimball explains it in his book How Not to Read the Bible. He always reminds the reader to first never read a Bible verse; read the verse in the context of the verses before and after, the entire chapter, the entire book, and that book’s place and purpose within the vast library that is the Bible in its entirety. Secondly, He reminds us that the Bible is for us not to us. Finally, he explains that our GOD has chosen, from the very beginning to partner with human beings rather than to expressly control them. He works within the hearts and minds of people as well as within the confines of their flawed systems to bring about progressive redemption for the oppressed. As He walked with our ancestors, He walks with us through the course of history actively working to fulfill His eternal promise of Heaven meeting Earth and all of creation made new. I personally would have hit the reboot button right after Lot’s daughters got him drunk, had relations with him, and fathered children for him…but that’s just my take on things.
I’m actually going to conclude with something that I didn’t particularly like about the book. This does not mean that I now dislike the book as a whole and will not finish reading it. I just find the way in which she presents this particular bit of information rather unsettling. I can imagine that she may have unintentionally lost some of her readers after this point and I think that’s a real shame. Barr describes being at a Women’s retreat and feeling discouraged by the exclusive focus on homemaking. She goes on to cite women who devoted their lives in service to the church…among them, Saint Paula of Rome. According to Barr, Saint Paula ‘abandoned her children for the higher purpose of following God’s call on her life.’ She elaborates further by quoting her biographer, Saint Jerome ‘as the ship drew away from the shore, Paula held her eyes to heaven…ignoring her children and putting her trust in God…in that rejoicing, her courage coveted the love of her children as the greatest of its kind, yet she left them all for the love of God.’ She then describes how Saint Paula would go on to work side by side with Saint Jerome to translate the Bible into the Vulgate Bible, one of the most widely read Bible versions of its time.
It’s not an exaggeration in the least to say that I was horrified reading this and had to reread it several times to ensure that I wasn’t misreading a keyword or phrase. I have never heard of Saint Paula before reading this book but I am pleased to learn of her invaluable contributions to church history. However, I don’t consider abandoning one’s children for any reason a cause of celebration or esteem. I’m even more surprised that Barr would make a conscious choice to use this as an example of Biblical womanhood. The fact that this small segment of the book presumably endured countless drafts and edits despite its jarring nature is baffling to me. In truth, it took me right out of the vibe of the book and caused me to stop reading for several hours.
Of course, I did what any sensible person would do in this situation and went ‘Google crazy’ trying to make sense of it. Sure enough, there were blogs and articles citing this as one of the most controversial and contested topics in her book. Saint Paula was married at sixteen and widowed at thirty-two with five children making her oldest possible child at the time of her husband’s death around 15 years old. Saint Paula reportedly set sail on a pilgrimage a year after her husband’s passing. Had she conceived her children at the closest succession possible, this would put her youngest at around eight or nine years old at the time of her departure. I couldn’t find a lot of detail about Saint Paula’s personal life so I was left to presume that there is likely more to the story and that she would have made appropriate provisions for her dependent children. Perhaps she was only leaving for a few weeks or months. Perhaps she really did wait until all of her children were of age before becoming a nun. Rather than being careful to present her in the best light possible, Barr leaves us to assume the worst about this patron saint…that she willingly orphaned her own children in pursuit of GOD’s calling on her life.
Extremes like this are why I often struggle to get fully on board with social movements like feminism or racial reconciliation. In a die-hard effort to sell your passion to the world, you can end up selling something that sounds irrational and self-serving. I’m supposed to overlook the fact that this woman may have treated her children cruelly because she made such amazing contributions to our faith? That’s like excusing the years of sexual predation that took place at Camp Kanakuk, or Ravi Zecharias for abusing women, or AW Tozer for neglecting and mistreating his wife and children all because they did so much to champion the cause of Christ. Indeed, millions have probably been drawn to the faith as a result of their works. But good things, even the things of GOD, can become idols just as easily as secular things. ‘On that day, many will say to me ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name.’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me you lawbreakers!’ (Matt 7:22-23 CSB). GOD’s work should never cause you to be unloving towards others because GOD’s work is all about loving others. If chasing ambition, a title, or a position is supposed to mean more to me than the well-being of my husband and children, then I guess I’m not really a feminist. I will just have to remain an anomaly…a woman whose life carries the discrete markings of feminism but whose beliefs and actions never quite fit that mold.
Colossians (Col 3:18-4:1)
Ephesians (Eph 5:21-6:9)