This is a less documented, more anecdotal post, as a result of my discovery a few days ago that all my books on this subject are in storage. I think I did that deliberately because I was tired of reading things that made me angry. So, this post won’t have a ton of sources, but if you want clarification on anything, I can probably point you to a book or essay explaining it in more depth.

***

I was 15 and that afternoon I was at the local swimming pool with my family. I was wearing a new-to-me swimsuit in an outdated shade of orange, but it was a “modest” one-piece and it fit my angular body well. While Mom was getting the littles slathered up in sunscreen, I stepped out of my shorts and flip flops, and tossed them onto the lounge next to my t-shirt. While I looked around the pool for friends, I untwisted my knot of hair from its ponytail holder and shook it all out in the breeze. Spotting my friends, I started toward them, but then mom called my name. “Hännah! Come here!”

She was beckoning me with a very serious look on her face. I walked toward her, and bent down. “Hm?”

She whispered, “Put your hair back up. You look…” She frowned, looking for the words. “You look too pretty. The young men will notice.”

I was confused. “What?”

“Put your hair back up. It’s long and catching the sun, and that swimsuit is…very striking. It’s too much. Put your hair back up.”

“Okay, okay. I will,” I said, walking away. I took my time with obeying her, dipping my head down and away from the people nearby, letting my hair flop across my face to hide my tears. I didn’t understand, and my stomach felt tight and my face hot. Once my hair was up, I plunged into the diving well, kicking down to sit on the bottom as long as I could before rising to the surface in a burst of cathartic energy.

I spent the rest of the afternoon away from my friends, reading a book by the poolside, wrapped in a damp towel and wearing my hair pulled back tightly. I didn’t want to be noticed.

Modest me shortly after the pool incident.

***

The current church’s concept of modesty is largely reactionary and fear-based.

But I didn’t realize that for a long time after the poolside incident. It was just one of many moments where I was “called out” on some impropriety (sitting cross legged, wearing a blouse with a too-thin back, bra straps peekabooing, twirling without shorts under my skirt at swing club, peekaboo gaps between buttons on a blouse, etc.) or told another girl that she was being immodest and to cover her neckline when she bent down.

In our SGM church, we were taught that modesty was a way we helped men not to lust. In youth group, we had breakout sessions, where the girls sat in one room and listened to talks about not reading romance novels (they make you think impure thoughts and desire a relationship too early!) and about how our responsibility was to not cause the guys to lust. Therefore, we were taught how to be modest.  We were taught that “correcting” each other was the highest form of Christian love, and so if we saw someone being immodest, we should speak to her about our “concern” and help her see how she was hurting the guys by her dress. And if a guy was “struggling”  because of a girl’s outfit, he could talk to her and ask her to cover up. (Meanwhile, the guys were in the next room listening to a talk about the sinfulness of pornography and masturbation.)

We got really good at this. We had the checklist posted up on our bathroom mirrors. We talked in code to each other if we spotted an infraction when we were around boys. We learned to sew well enough to modesty-hack new clothes so they would be “appropriate.” We dressed up in new shopping finds and paraded them for our fathers, asking him to make sure they weren’t inappropriate. If he said something didn’t make the cut, we’d return it and start over. This was “biblical femininity” in action.

Once I was conscious of the male gaze, I was a slave to avoiding it. I became obsessed with obeying the rules as dutifully as I could. I avoided talking with boys—it might be seen as flirting. I avoided looking too stylish or doing my hair and makeup with too much care, because I didn’t want to be dressing for attention. I wore shorts and a t-shirt over my swimsuits or avoided the pool altogether, claiming that I didn’t want to get a bad sunburn. I became a watchdog for my sisters, smugly tattling on them to our dad if I caught them dressing in a way I deemed immodest. I judged my friends for enjoying time hanging out with guys in a group, thinking that this was a perverse desire for male attention.

The effects of this mindset on others (not just in my church, but in the QF/CP movement as a whole) were more personally damaging than my priggishness, but perhaps less obvious. My sister judged classic art for the nudes, “fixing” them with a permanent marker in a textbook. Friends fell into eating disorders, hoping to be less seductive if they were thinner and had less boobs to notice. Some hated themselves for their developing bodies and instead ate too much, silencing their self-consciousness with comfort food. Some took razors to their bodies in secret. Some toed the line, but just barely, attempting to get away with whatever they could without getting “called out” by someone.

This was essentially an assumption that lust is damning, women are both the objects and the cause of lust, and so we were responsible to prevent it. This, I believed, was gospel truth straight from the Bible.

Of course, women were never mentioned as having lust problems. We might have emotional fantasies and imaginary romances, but lust was a male issue. This drove me to loneliness and horrific shame, as I was a teenager with a normal, healthy sex drive. I was horny and I was mortified; this wasn’t supposed to be my problem. The church would announce a men’s meeting to talk about fighting lust and accountability for not using porn, and I would shrivel up, wishing that my secret wasn’t a secret, and that maybe there would be a women’s meeting, too. Or that I could “serve” at the men’s event and eavesdrop, and there learn the secrets for freeing myself from myself.

Later I would learn that I was 1) pretty normal, 2) not “addicted” or damned, 3) loved unconditionally by my husband and by Jesus. The bondage I had been in wasn’t as real as I thought—the mindset I had about lust and modesty fed my obsession and my shame, and once freed from the whole set of lies, I would discover that this was just a minor difficulty, not a paralyzing sin issue.

For the guys growing up in this environment of modesty culture, there was (as I have since learned from my husband, who grew up in a church affiliated with mine) a similar sense of being paralyzed by lust and shame. It was so assumed that he would lust after women that he never questioned it when accountability groups would meet and the guys would almost exclusively talk about their struggles with lust. It was as if they were powerless, animalistic and perpetually obsessed with sex. This is a caricature in Hollywood and the über conservative church—but this is not your average man.

Kevin told me that once he left SGM and he’d been out of the dialect and culture for a while, he found that he wasn’t struggling with lust like he used to–the idea of a woman’s body alone wasn’t a turn-on anymore. He found that his desires naturally were directed at a few specific things and toward whoever he was in a relationship with, and that he could appreciate a woman’s beauty and form without lust. He was no longer being told he was a slave to these things and asked to confess and obsess on them, and when he left that environment he was freed from the mentality it fostered.

As I spent time out of this culture, I found changes as well. I learned that being pretty and enjoying making myself look good weren’t sinful things, and I began to relax a bit. After being married, I have discovered that the idea that modesty is a woman’s responsibility is a very demeaning concept, and really doesn’t share anything in common with the teachings of Jesus, who held individuals responsible for their own sins, and gave grace to the naive and broken and penitent. He never said that women caused lust. Instead, he argued that lust reflects preexisting heart desires. And instead of demeaning women like the culture of his day, he respected them and made them his disciples and close friends, and the first witnesses to his resurrection.

I now realize that most of the assumptions I previously held were false, even anti-Christian:

The assumption that preventing lust is my job is wrong: only the one lusting is responsible for his or her heart. 

The assumption that modesty will prevent lust is false: lust wants what it wants and will see it where it wants.

The assumption that men are ravenous, sex-crazed beings, trapped by their passions: false. Men desire companionship and affirmation and sex and love, just like women. Women experience lust and sexual urges and visual stimulation. These things vary from person to person, but not so much gender to gender. There is great compassion in Jesus for our humanity. 

The Bible verses on modesty we all used as proof texts for the misconceptions and legalism we held so dear? These were largely about compassion for others and humility. True modest is not drawing undue attention to yourself. We wear what fits the occasion and is respectable. Finding the line of what’s appropriate and reverent: this is modesty. It’s a heart attitude, not a set of rules defined by gender stereotypes.

I have learned that my shame over my body was wrong. My body is hallowed because Jesus took on a body. My body is beautiful in the echo of creation and redemption perfection. My body is human and flawed and funky in my fallenness. But I am not to be ashamed of how I was made or loathe myself for it, and I am not guilty for the sins of others who may happen to lust after it. I can dress without fear, because I am not responsible for the worst possible outcome. I am responsible for doing well and living in a manner that reflects the grace I know in Jesus’ unconditional love.

Overcoming lust doesn’t happen by working harder. I tried. Overcoming lust happens by loving Jesus more than loving self-service. Shame over past lust and past sins is inappropriate–grace is active in the lives of the saints, and we are conformed to holiness by Jesus’ love. Not by working hard because we think that’s a what good Christians are supposed to do. We are transformed by taking each day on its own and not being anxious over transgressions that have already been cast away. Perfect love casts out fear.


Click for source.

I’d like to start a regular feature here about the concept of gender roles within the church, and how they affect us, why they affect us, and how they ought to affect us. I intend for this to be primarily a discussion, and I ask that you engage these posts by first laying down your assumptions. Please be willing to read these posts on their own terms, and then compare them with what you believe after you read them. I would also love to get topic suggestions and questions from my readers to address in future posts.

I’ve had this idea for over a year. It’s been kicked around with my sister, with my husband, with my friends, all in various shapes. I’ve sat on it so long for fear of losing my passion for it, for fear of processing it for myself and finding my need to write about this wane as I grow firm in my beliefs and move on. And for fear of how it will be received.

But I haven’t been able to move on, to burn off my passion with a few months of talking in private. Instead, the number of conversations I’ve had with people about these issues has grown steadily. I’ve become aware of a deep communal need to sort this out in my generation of Christians – those largely raised in the church and coming into adulthood with a unique mixture of earnestness and cynicism. I’m not alone in needing to talk about this, and I’d like to open it up on my blog to enable other Christians to discuss it as much as they need.

Before I continue, I must lay down a clarification of purpose. This blog happens to be written by a woman, but it is not a women’s blog. I’m writing for Christians, in general. I find that the young men of my generation are often just as perplexed and discouraged by these issues as the women are, and need to discuss these things equally.

I’ll get things going with the first real post for this feature later on in the week; in the meantime, I should clarify my personal biases.

***

Most of you know I was raised in a fairly patriarchal homeschooling family, and there were a lot of positives as well as negatives from that experience. I was also part of a cult-like church which emphasized strongly that a woman’s highest calling [read: any other life pursuit is looked down on] was to be a wife and mother and make a home for her family. I was the only one of my graduating peers in that church who went out of state for college, and I was one of the few girls of that group to say that I wanted a career and I wasn’t sure if I’d be a great mom one day. (I’m sure the reality was much, much more diverse than this, but it was my perception of things at the time and it reflects, I suppose, the intense loneliness I felt in that group.) I was also one of the few girls interested in questions of theology and doctrine, and often resented that I was a girl and therefore couldn’t go to seminary.

These experiences, among other things, created in me a sensitivity to gender expectations within the church. This sensitivity was jolted into personal frustration when when my dad pressured me to submit to his discernment on (read: his feelings on and the resulting decisions regarding) my relationship with my boyfriend, now husband. I pushed back against this, asking him why, if he could trust that God was speaking to and leading me to change churches, couldn’t he also trust my discernment in regard to my boyfriend’s character? The response I got was based on the assumption that daughters are to submit to the authority of their fathers until they are wed (at which point, I was told, the authority would transfer from the father to the husband).

I couldn’t believe it. My dad never meant to treat me badly, but the assumptions he was acting under were based on the teachings of the church we were part of for my teen years, and that church had been a place that (for us) fostered serious spiritual abuse. Challenging his assumptions brought our conflict to these terms: I had to prove (using verses from the Bible) that my beliefs regarding my spiritual independence from my dad’s authority was biblical, and then he would be willing to agree to disagree. This is very typical of us – our relationship has always been based in mutual respect for the other’s intellectual integrity, and still is. So, I took him up on his terms. I pulled out the concordance and the Greek lexicon and I drafted 5 sloppy pages on why I thought his interpretation of various verses, especially the NASB translation of 1 Cor. 7:36-38, wasn’t accurate, and responded with my own set of verses and commentaries to justify my spiritual emancipation from him. [As an aside, I have come to the conclusion that these sorts of hunt-and-peck use of verses as proof texts for this and that grey area issue is an abuse of scripture. The purpose of the Bible is not to give us detailed instructions on moral living, but to display the character of God and our relationship to him.]

This was a highly painful season for us. He felt rejected, I believe (which was never my intent), and I felt manipulated and unloved (but he never meant it this way). It was painful and stressful and I probably misremember t0 my own benefit.

This interaction brought to my attention, once again, the reality: in the church circles I was raised in, women are expected to defer to men, and there are significant social and relational consequences if they don’t.

Finally, two other things occurred to push me over the edge into “accidental feminism” or, really, a state of heightened awareness of the church’s messy relationship to gender issues:

First, I was attending a little Presbyterian church for a while during college, and one Sunday they were short on ushers. I heard about this and offered to help for the service.  The ushers functioned as the greeters, the distributors of the offering plates, and they also passed out the bread and wine during communion, row by row to the congregation. I was told that they’d rather go without than have me help–I was female and they didn’t want a woman distributing the elements. I was shocked. I wouldn’t be preaching; I wouldn’t be sanctifying the sacraments; I would just be handing a basket of wafers down the row, then a tray with little juice cups. But because I have a vagina, I wasn’t allowed to help.

The second thing was this: I was fighting with spiritual dryness and decided to sit down to reread the gospel and epistles from the apostle John, in an attempt to see Jesus at his most relational. Reading through these books took a lot longer than I anticipated. I was stunned by my reintroduction to this Jesus. Coming to these passages deeply empty and under significant emotional distress about the situation with my dad allowed me to come to these pages with new eyes. And I realized: Jesus loved women. Jesus didn’t treat them like the rest of society did at that time. He took them seriously, he interacted with them without shame or superiority, and he made them significant members of his entourage, and the first witnesses of his resurrection. I saw that the way Jesus treated the opposite sex was nothing like how the church was dealing with gender issues, and certainly nothing like what I was experiencing from the church as a woman. Furthermore, the Jesus of the Bible didn’t really line up very well with the ideals for “masculine Christianity” as posited by the likes of Mark Driscoll, Stephen Altrogge, Douglas Wilson, or John Piper. And then I knew that, if the church is to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world, these things would have to change.

So this English major (who was also in the middle of an honors seminar love affair with Jacques Derrida), began to reconsider all her assumptions about what the church had taught her about sexuality and gender, and revisit all the proof texts for these issues with fresh curiosity for context, audience, linguistic implications, authorial intent, etc.

Now, I’d like to take this personal study of mine public, and explore individual issues relating to the Bible, gender, and the church along with you.

***

A word of clarification regarding the title (with thanks to David for coining it!): this snarky turn of phrase refers to the modesty panel/modesty rail in the front of the first pew in most old-style churches. This panel derived from times when churches weren’t heated and parishioners needed the paneling to contain heat in the winter, but evolved into what it is today because of shrinking skirt lengths and concerns about peeping toms in the choir. Or something like that. I’m a born-and-raised Christian kid. This is my front-row perspective and I’ve decided to stop holding back on what I see.

I chose “immodesty” because I am deliberately drawing attention to grey area issues in the church, insignificant compared with the gospel and the creeds, but pertinent to most people and frequently ignored by the privileged. Immodesty, as my dad says (quite well, I think), is “drawing undue attention to oneself.” In homage to With apologies to Flannery O’Connor, I hope to draw “large pictures” for the blind that they might see what is before them – both the positive and the negative. I will draw magnified attention to these issues for the sake of those working through them, and for the sake of those who don’t yet realize that these issues are worth consideration. Furthermore, I think it’s funny that one’s awareness about this issue often starts with questioning traditional modesty teachings.

I also chose the word “rail” with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor: women with controversial or non-conformist opinions are often accused of being “shrill” or “emotional.” A shrill tirade used to be synonymous with “railing” at someone, and while I intend to be reasonable and calm, I am sure that my discussions will be called rants. So I’ll just take the liberty of truncating that: here I will reasonably “rail” about issues pertaining to gender in the church, and I might get a bit exaggerated with it to make a point. So gird up your loins! We’re going to start with the topic of modesty and lust later this week. Okay, I’m done with the cutesy puns.

Do you have ideas for topics to discuss on Immodesty Rail? Email me at mattiechatham [at] gmail [dot] com.


Have you heard of a “commonplace book”? It’s an old idea, and has been most recently resurrected by hipsters bearing Moleskines. Basically, it’s a notebook full of  accumulated everyday notes – your shopping list, a quote from the book you’re reading, the recipe copied from your mom’s cookbook, a sketch from the metro of the weird bag lady, the outline for the novel you’re planning on writing.

I think I’m going to steal the idea for these link roundups I’ve been posting and call the series “Commonplace Links.” The theme is this: I think they’re all worth reading, to expand one’s understanding of the world and compassion for others. They intrigued or tickled my fancy, or perhaps they sobered me and challenged me to step outside myself. I may not agree with all the ideas presented therein, but I will pretty much always think the concepts contained are worth weighing out without bringing my own presuppositions and baggage to the table. If you read them too, I ask that you give them the courtesy of a fair read, even if you instinctively disagree or it’s not terribly well-written. This will be a weekly feature on Thursdays, and I’ll take recommendations if you have anything you’d like to pass on.

So, here we go again! Commonplace links for your perusal.

“Is ambition a sin?”  – Rachel Held Evans responds to the “Top 200 Church Blogs” fiasco (basically a lot of really good women bloggers were missing for weird reasons and the compiler of the list wrote a patronizing apology) with a graceful analysis of the deeper assumptions involved.

“In Defense of the 4-letter Word” Addie Zeirman posts on the appropriate use of strong language in a Christian’s vocabulary. After a particularly rough week, my brother said he was feeling shitty, and got jumped on by some well-meaning friends for using “foul language” and not “representing Christ well” and not “using words that build up.” Here is a lovely, succinct post which captures why the comments of those kids rubbed me the wrong way.

“Jesus Was Otherwise Engaged: Impacting All Women, Not Just One” – Ortberg reacts to the discovery of a text supposedly from the 4th century which indicates that Jesus may have had a wife. His response is calm and thoughtful–the discovery, if true, doesn’t change much. Jesus already drastically impacted how women are viewed (in historically positive ways), and he elucidates on the beauty of this.

“The Dark Side of Weight Loss” – NSFW, but worth seeing. One woman photographs the ravages of her major weight loss on her body. This is art.

“Why Women Hide Their Pregnancies” – NYT article on pregnant woman in the workplace/on the job hunt. Makes me want to just move to Scandinavia. Women there get 6 months off work after they give birth, guaranteed. Humph.

“Julia Gillard Launches Blistering Attack on Sexism” – After I finish with Sweden, I’ll just to Australia. This video is the most epic blast of calm reason. If our presidential candidates could speak half this well, voter turnout would spike. Just watch it.

“Espresso and the Meaning of Life: Embracing Reality through Everyday Liturgies” – I’m happy to be introduced to this new webzine, Fare Forward. This post on the ritual of making coffee for the love of the thing is beautiful. Walker Percy, of course, is involved. It goes very nicely with my series on incarnation and eating.

“Ask a stay-at-home dad” – Last week, some bloggers said that stay-at-home dads are “man fails.” Utter silliness. Take a look at this delightful interview with a Christian dad and enjoy his apologetic for why he chose to stay home with his son.

“Bamfield’s John Vanden” – My brother- and sister-in-law introduced me to The Bills last week on the roadtrip. Some of the best new folk I’ve heard in a long time. If you like Allison Krauss, Mumford and Sons, or The Avett Brothers, you’ll like The Bills. Go listen!

Have recommendations for me? Email them to me at mattiechatham [at] gmail [dot] com.



Last night, hit by both “my brain is flat-lining after a long day” and an absurd level of contentment–despite running into the awkward moment earlier in the evening at the grocery store checkout when my debit card declined a $5 transaction and I was scrounging for pennies in my change purse [we’re okay, it was just coincidental timing with a check going out earlier than I thought it would]–I pulled out Regina Spektor, my 4B pencils and a sketchbook.

I hadn’t drawn in a while. The kneaded eraser was new and I worked it until it was soft, sharpened pencils, trimmed my blending stick, and finally started sketching. I was trying to sketch the back and shoulders of a woman, but little things were off. The shoulders were too short or too slumped, the arms were slightly off-kilter, and the neck was ungainly. I realized this was more than just being out of practice. I just really didn’t have a good grasp of the anatomy of the way the shoulder meets the arm and the back. I didn’t know how to shade it properly, and I didn’t have internet to pull up an image search for reference. This made me realize two things: 1) I need to take a figure drawing class [I’ll have to save up for that], and 2) I hadn’t done any serious nude figure studies before.

I have always loved drawing people, but when I was really into it, during high school, I mostly kept myself to just drawing faces. Drawing the body came with too many unspoken taboos–once, I drew a flamenco dancer in a red dress, and left her body as shapeless as I possibly could, altering the dress to be “modest.” Carolyn Mahaney’s Modesty Checklist was all the rage at our church at the time, and every girl who was “serious” about her faith had it practically memorized. It was taped up on the wall by bedroom mirrors, and we were all quick to help each other adhere to this list. It would be normal to hear one girl comment to the other that her neckline was revealing and she should go adjust it–and did she need any safety pins for that? I went along with it, and accepted it as good.

Some of the points made by Carolyn are just fine. I agree with the principle of the thing. There’s a place for being discreet and being modest and not dressing inappropriately. But the spirit of that checklist however–I now realize–is blatantly legalistic. The mentality it promotes created a subconscious fear of the body–even a bizarre detachment of “self” from the body–in the minds of girls who were taught to believe in the message of this highly detailed modesty rulebook.

How Modesty Made Me Fat” is one girl’s experience living with this mindset (afraid of being seductive, pretty, sexy, noticed) and while her struggle became extreme, it’s pretty true to the insidiousness of this way of thinking. Homeschooled girls don’t always dress like homeschooled girls because they “aren’t socialized enough.” Homeschooled girls mostly dress like they do because they are taught that the female form is something to be afraid of (and by inference, inherently sinful). I have been that girl, afraid to get noticed for having a feminine body.

To a degree, this awkwardness is part and parcel with normal adolescence. During puberty we are more self-conscious and have to learn to identify as whole selves with our newly-matured bodies. But fear is not healthy and trying to hide who we are as women is just silly.

This fear of a normal, adult body affects how you see everything. For example: around the time this checklist came out, my sister and her friend took my mom’s art history book (a huge, gorgeous book full of giant glossy pages with color images of every major artwork until the late 20th century), and they pulled out a big black Sharpie and drew 1) boxers on Michelangelo’s David and all the other male nudes, and 2) one-piece bathing suits/bras on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and all the other female nudes. From my understanding of the story, they thought my parents would be glad to have all that wicked nudity taken care of so that the book would be “appropriate.” Instead, my mom was [rightfully] mortified.

This mindset breeds fear of self in women, and more than that, it objectifies men. These modesty teachings are promoted with good intent–to “keep our brothers from stumbling” [lusting] and to protect girls from . . . men’s lust. The logic doesn’t work; the assumption is that men are helpless against their natural attraction to the female form and the sometimes inevitable result of desiring that form, and so all men (in the minds of these girls) become helpless slaves to lust.

This creates even more unnatural distance between the sexes in homeschool/conservative Christian circles. Girls become (naturally) suspicious of guys, of being alone in the same room (even if it’s a public area!) as a man (what if he decides to rape me?!), of being told by a guy that they look pretty (Oh no he must be lusting after me! Did I dress modestly enough?), etc. I’m using a bit of hyperbole here, but the underlying point remains: extreme modesty teachings creates unnecessary fear in the minds of girls and teaches them to assumes the worst of men and the inner thoughts of men.

This teaching also hurts how boys and young men think about themselves. Their sexual desires become the central evil in their lives and undue focus is given to how sinful these [normal, natural] desires are. Lust is sin, yes. But talking to adolescents mainly about lust and modesty and how evil sexual desire is will make them feel utterly enslaved to these things.

It’s the “don’t think about pink elephants” principle–talking about how wrong something is in an unbalanced manner will feed an unhealthy fascination with the issue. Guys don’t have to be slaves to lust. It’s possible for a guy to acknowledge “that woman has a beautiful body” and not be aroused sexually. But the all-or-nothing modesty/lust paradigm leaves no room for this, and so men remain suspect and are brought to assume that they can’t help themselves if they do lust–and the women just need to be more modest, to protect everyone. It’s really demeaning for both sexes.

Now, not every conservative Christian or homeschooling family believes this just like I described above. However, there’s a lot of this mess influencing a lot of people, and I heartily believe that this is not how God intended us to see each other or our own bodies. The body is often a beautiful thing and it is possible for a woman to be womanly and attractive without generating lust in men. It’s also possible that a man will lust after a woman in a potato sack, just because he knows she’s a woman.

Blanket assumptions about the hearts of others are never really unhelpful, and the thinking patterns they create are difficult to overcome. Christianity needs to refresh its theology of the body to combat these assumptions.

And I really need to find a model so I can practice drawing shoulders. Any volunteers?


When I say I’m a feminist, all I mean is that women should be treated like Jesus treated them. In love, fairness, justice, and equality under the law. The majority of women around the world today are not treated with fairness and justice. This is why I call myself a Christian feminist. – Abby at Little Stories [It’s a really good post. Go read the whole thing.]

Where I come from, to identify with the feminist movement or feminist theory is the social equivalent of having a baby out of wedlock and enjoying the shock value, using the f-word in front of the Baptist pastor’s wife just to make her cry/blush, or wearing a pentagram and a mohawk to church because you hate your parents. It’s assumed that if you’re a feminist, you’re giving God the middle finger and plan to do whatever the hell you want to do.

That assumption is so wrong, and I confess I get impatient with those who believe this. People who identify themselves as feminists can sometimes be like that, yes. But then again, the Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t represent those who define themselves as Christians, does it?

The majority of feminists are just trying to live their lives in a thoughtful, ethical manner–respecting everyone, including themselves. Equality cuts both ways. Ethically consistent feminists will seek justice for any who are oppressed, and sometimes that happens to be women.

As an English major, feminism is a word that has a whole world of loaded meaning–and none of it matches up with the bra-burning, baby-killing, men-hating stereotype painted by the conservative Christian ghetto.

Feminist literary theory seems easy to me. At its simplest, it basically examines the text as if it were a photographic negative–what’s missing speaks the loudest. The absence of men in such and such roles, and the absence of women in these other roles, the masculine-heavy language used by the women in a text written by a male author, etc. You approach the text with your assumptions inverted, and see what you find. At its most complex, it tangles psychoanalytic theories of linguistics with feminine absences/presences and delves into subconscious nuances in the very words of a text. That’s where it gets fascinating, really. And my English professors would probably pale at the truncated and caricatured description I just gave–it’s a lot more complex than just what I [tried] to describe. Sorry, Messer.

The reason I feel that feminist theory is easy is this: up until the late 1800s, most books were written by men in a male-dominant culture. Feminist criticism can have a field day with almost anything written before Feminist theory came along and everyone started being self-aware in their writings. (meta-meta. This sort of writing became like an internet meme among novelists in the last 50 years and it’s really annoying.) It’s easy to find something new to pick apart for its misogyny and absence of feminine language. It becomes a cop-out among English students just trying to get a degree without putting a lot of original thought into their theses, while looking like they are because the text they’ve chosen hasn’t been analyzed in depth before from the feminist perspective.

. . . this doesn’t sound anything like the feminism you know, does it?

My point is, “feminist” is a loaded word, and using it in its fullest academic meaning will earn me dirty looks and incredulity from most conservative Christians.

Dear Christians, please lay down your arms, and make sure that word means what you think it means before teaching your children that [insert a word used to describe a group of people] don’t love Jesus.


I’ve been stewing on this for a while.

As an English major, I’ve studied some Feminist theory and think it’s a fascinating mental exercise (I also think it’s lazy academics, most of the time, but that’s another issue). As the daughter of conservative Christians attempting to revive/reinvent orthodoxy (“reinvent” in the sense that they didn’t grow up in the Church and were trying to create a coherent theological praxis for life) in an age marked by the Church’s decline, I grew up reading books like Let Me Be A Woman by Elisabeth Elliot, What’s The Difference by John Piper, and reading magazines and blogs which highlighted the beauties of femininity and the home.

Some of that reading was handed to me by my parents, some was required study for church groups, some was just motivated by my own earnest hunger to learn more about God and what it means to be a Christian. I’m almost always hungry to think things through and study issues that pique my curiosity, and “Biblical gender roles” has always been high on that list.

From an email I wrote to a friend last month:

My husband and I had a silly fight last night. [edit: It was my fault. This is not uncommon. I am a girl, I have a temper, I tend to over-think everything, and I tend to over-think everything out loud. Poor guy. Good thing for me, he’s patient. Anyway, we had this fight.] And I was being irrational and ranting at him, and he made reference to Proverbs 21:9 (the contentious wife/better to live on the corner of the housetop, etc.). It was fitting, I admit.

However, my retort then was, “If the Bible had been written in any part by women, there would have been verses about hard-hearted husbands in it, too!” …which was silly and rude, but the thought had never occurred to me before. And I sheepishly admit that I still think it’s true–the Bible is a male-dominant text, and if women had been educated enough to be in a position where they could have contributed to the Canon, there might just have been proverbs about husbands, and there might have been a lot more poetic books.

I was musing about how my husband and I have a relationship that’s really not based on “headship” and “submission”  or even “initiation and response” (key phrases for those subscribing to “Biblical Complementarianism”). As I wrote to this same friend:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the word “helpmeet.” Apparently the original words  [in Hebrew] mean something more like someone who is a highly skilled and practiced partner in battle–like in a partnership where both understand and respond to each other fluidly and adroitly, and they are working strongly together for the same end.

“Mutual submission” is a phrase that the proponents of “egalitarian marriage” like to use–the husband and the wife are equals, each submitting to each other to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Maybe the wife does some typical “manly” jobs around the house (or vice versa), because she’s just better at them than her husband–maybe she’s an accountant and he’s an artist, so she manages the finances and he decorates. Or maybe he cooks breakfast for her every morning, and she keeps the schedule moving.

Complementarians like to be specific. They tend to like stereotypical gender roles as patterns to emulate. Vision Forum’s catalog is a pretty standard example of this played out to its logical extremes. Blogger Libby Anne does a nice job of picking this apart. This gender role specificity in conservative America/conservative Christianity can result in weirdly stiff ideals or models for marriages, parenting, and relationships in general. Girls who are tomboys feel out of place and stifled, boys who are more bookish or indoorsy feel insecure and unmanly.

The same sort of thinking about “gender roles” results in experimental gender neutral schools. An ideal of a certain sort of gender role (here it’s none and all) is held up, and kids are raised in ways that encourage them to be just like that ideal.

I suppose what I’m trying to get at is this: gender roles in the Bible were partially social constructs (that is, defined by cultural norms and assumptions) and partially God’s design–women couldn’t own property, women weren’t well-educated, women weren’t respected (the Pharisees regularly thanked God that they weren’t “born a woman or a slave.” Oh, yeah, and slavery isn’t directly condemned by the Bible…).

Gender roles in the 1950s or 1980s (yes, opposite ends of the spectrum) were partially social constructs and partially God’s design. Even those gender-neutral schools are exhibiting something that’s attempting to be largely a social construct  (homosexuality/any sexuality is cool) and a little bit of God’s design (everyone is unique).

God did design men and women to be different. God did design all humans to be equal. God did design all humans to be individually unique. God didn’t design women to be subservient doormats, and God didn’t design men to be tyrants. Conversely: women are not to be power-hungry bitches, and men are not to be whiny couch potatoes.

Perhaps the phrase “Biblical gender roles” ought to be laid aside. After all, no two women will quite be alike in skills, interests, or character. And no two men will mirror each other closely enough for there to be detailed rules about how a Christian man ought to act. There are definitely Biblical guidelines for how to relate to other people, and there are Biblical guidelines for how men and women are to care well for each other in marriage–Christ is the model there.

But I’m just a little tired of tidy “Biblical gender roles” being the answer to all relationship problems. And maybe I’d like to remind patriarchal Christians that there was at least one female bishop/regional elder in the early church. Her name was Junia.  What do you make of that?