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Failure and Power at Willow Creek

Willow Creek Community Church sign
image via Wikipedia | CC0 1.0

I haven’t wanted to write about the situation at Willow Creek. I have no special insights, no particular connection beyond gratitude for its prominence as an egalitarian congregation. I was thrilled a year ago when Willow announced that their new lead pastor, the successor to Bill Hybels, would be a woman.

But the slow-moving train wreck at Willow Creek over allegations that Bill Hybels acted inappropriately towards multiple women is a painful reminder that egalitarian theology isn’t enough to protect women from men willing to abuse their power.

I would like to think that egalitarian theology automatically creates a better atmosphere for women. Because as much as I grieve for the many women hurt by the actions of leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention, it’s easy to see these abuses as the natural outgrowth of theologies that treat women as subordinate to men. It’s much harder when the abuses occur in churches with the “right” theology.

I do think that complementarian theology creates a culture ripe for abuse. And I believe that egalitarian theology, a theology that maintains the full equality and humanity of men and women, can help protect against the abuse of women.

But the difficult reality revealed by Willow Creek is that no theological system can fully protect women. While complementarian theology can hide abuse under the veneer of biblical faithfulness, egalitarian theology can blind us to abuse because we imagine that this right theological framework automatically translates into the right treatment of women.

As Willow Creek demonstrates, though, someone like Bill Hybels can simultaneously believe that a woman is fully qualified to succeed him in ministry while also, allegedly, treating some women as objects for his own sexual gratification.

In the wake of the resignation of the entire elder board and the lead pastors of Willow Creek last week, Katelyn Beaty argued that the problem is not, at its core, about misogyny or sexual misconduct; instead, the problem is the blindness of the American evangelical church to power.

I agree with Beaty that power is the elephant in the room, and that any way forward for Willow that refuses to address power will fail to prevent similar problems in the future.

The events at Willow Creek should be a sobering reminder for all of us who hold egalitarian theology. If our view of women in the church does not address the power structures — the powers and principalities of the world — that elevate men over women, we end up with an empty theology, pretty words that cannot accomplish their promise of equality for women.

Addressing the power of patriarchy is a far more difficult task than inviting the occasional woman to preach or even hiring women to lead. But unless we are willing to do that hard work, egalitarian theology will never be able to fully liberate women to serve alongside men and freely use their gifts to build up the church. Egalitarian theology will become yet another “biblical” mask under which women are still treated as less than men.

I highly recommend Scot McKnight’s blog posts outlining the events at Willow over the last few years that have led up to this scandal, here and here.

Tagged: gender | theology | church

Book Review: Fat and Faithful

Fat and Faithful book cover
image courtesy of Fortress Press

My youngest daughter loves my “fluffy tummy.” Let me see it, Mommy, she begs; lifts up my shirt; buries her head in my belly. You’re so soft, she says.

Tell me why it’s so fluffy, she asks. She knows the answer: because I grew three big, beautiful babies in my body. But she wants to hear, again, that my belly is tangible proof that she was once a part of me.

She loves my soft, squishy, fluffy tummy so much that I can’t bear to tell her my truth:

I hate it.

To me, my belly fat doesn’t represent three pregnancies that happened alongside a PhD, a cross-country move, a new job, so many good and hard things in my life. Instead, it represents failure. Lack of discipline and self-control.

My belly betrays that I’d rather sleep than pry myself out of bed and hit the gym. It reveals that I think chocolate tastes better than skinny feels. It shows how much I enjoy eating the bread that I love baking.

The jiggle in my thighs proves that I cannot bring my mind to bear over matter. That I have failed to discipline my genetic predisposition to squishiness into lean muscle.

What my daughter sees as physical evidence of love and comfort and connection I see as failure of the will.

And so I found Nicole Morgan’s new book, Fat and Faithful, incredibly challenging. In her book, Morgan makes a strong case for recognizing the image of God in every body, regardless of how far that body strays from our cultural ideas of a “good” body.

From this starting point, Morgan strongly criticizes the Christian diet industry, and indeed our modern-day understanding of the sin of gluttony. She argues that our association of skinniness with holiness is not only cultural but damaging as it devalues the personhood of those who do not, or cannot, achieve a “good” body.

Although the book is not a memoir, Morgan uses her own experiences as a fat woman in the church to illustrate the heartbreaking pressure and dehumanizing assumptions she faced and, at times, internalized. As a young woman, she believed that her large body negated her words, that no one would come to Christ through her because she lacked the faith and discipline to lose weight.

Morgan is absolutely right that the church, like the rest of the culture, prizes thinness — and she drives home the necessary point that the church does great damage when it equates fatness with sinfulness.

I also appreciate her point that an obsession with how and what we eat — calorie counting, labeling foods “good” and “bad,” berating ourselves for cheating — gets in the way of joyful communal tables. I’ve agonized myself over how people might perceive my own food choices at communal meals, and that internal agony does nothing to enhance community.

Morgan makes good and important points about loving and accepting our bodies, and about how the church has failed to honor the image of God in bodies that exist outside cultural ideals of beauty and goodness.

But I still struggle with the idea of fat acceptance, especially for myself. I find myself able to extend grace and acceptance to others that I just can’t seem to apply to myself.

I know that I’m not as disciplined with my eating and exercising as I could be. I eat far too much sugar and too many carbs. I don’t exercise as much as I should. I ended one gym membership when I moved this spring, and I haven’t managed to actually sign up at the new gym I’ve chosen.

I want to be healthy — that’s part of my motivation, and not bad — but I also want to be closer to my pre-pregnancy body. Maybe even my pre-PhD-exams body. I’ve never loved my body, but I now regret not loving it more when I was far closer to social ideals.

And after years of living as a woman in America, it’s incredibly hard for me to disentangle “healthy” from “thin.” I want to bike with my kids. Physical activity lifts my mood. I feel crappy when I eat too much sugar. But when I swap fresh fruit for ice cream and a brisk walk for a Netflix binge and I don’t lose weight, I wonder if it’s worth the effort. I let my scale tell me whether or not I should feel good.

I don’t know how to love this body that I live in. I’m not even convinced in my heart of hearts that I should love it, at least not until I manage to remake it into something else, something disciplined, something skinny, something perfect. Something impossible.

So Fat and Faithful challenges me on a personal level. Can I love my body even in its imperfections? Can I love my body enough to care for it rather than punish it into compliance? Can I love my body as God does, as part of God’s good creation?

I can’t do it right now. It seems impossible that I will ever love my fluffy tummy the way my daughter does.

But I can start by accepting that she loves it rather than telling her that she should feel differently.

Men Reading Women: Recommended Reading

stacks of books
image via pixabay | CC0 1.0

The final installment in a five-part series on why men may be reluctant to read women and how even well-intentioned men default to reading other men. Catch up with part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Recommended Reading: So you’ve read the last several blog posts and decided to add more women to your reading list. Great! There are so very, very many excellent books by women that this blog post could expand to ridiculous proportions. But I will attempt to restrain myself and recommend some books.

I am limiting myself to women who write in English, although this reveals another type of myopia. Plus, this is a very short list of women writers I particularly like or have been particularly challenged by; take these books as recommendations, not a comprehensive education or even introduction to literature by women.

Pre- and Early Modern Writers

  • Sappho, poems: both revered for her skill and vilified for excelling in a male-dominated art, Sappho deserves to be read alongside Homer. I particularly like the translation by Anne Carson titled If Not, Winter.

  • Marie de France, Lais: short romances, written in the twelfth century, that explore the nature of love and desire.

  • Julian of Norwich, Revelation of Divine Love: mystical theology that reflects on God’s great love for us despite our sinfulness.

  • Aemilia Lanyer, “The Defense of Eve”: in this poem, Lanyer makes a strong argument for not blaming Eve alone for the Fall.

  • Mary Sidney, Psalms: Mary completed her brother Philip’s English verse translations of the Psalms, and probably edited the ones her brother wrote as well; her translations beautifully render these ancient poems.

Seventeenth through Nineteenth Centuries

  • Aphra Behn, Oronoko: a tragic novel about the evils of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: man tries to create life, and instead creates something monstrous by usurping God and (mother) nature.

  • Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice or Emma: these may be novels about women getting married, but they’re keenly observed and funny as hell.

  • Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: an early feminist classic.

Twentieth Century and Beyond: Fiction and Poetry

  • Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse. A classic novel that explores the limitations that women face.

  • Sylvia Plath, poems: Plath’s poetry transmutes the raw anger and despair of her female experience into tragically beautiful verse.

  • Marilynne Robinson, novels and essays: I could substitute Flannery O'Connor here; these two women explore the ordinary living out of faith — in all its joy and heartbreak — better than nearly anyone else.

  • Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night: one of her Peter Wimsey mystery novels, Gaudy Night has very little Peter and no dead body at all. The action takes place at a women’s college in Oxford, and explores the difficult decisions faced by women seeking to balance love, family and work.

  • Chimamanda Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun: a story about twin sisters, set during the Biafran War in Nigeria.

Twentieth Century and Beyond: Non-Fiction

  • Roxane Gay, Hunger: by turns heartbreaking and enraging, this series of essays considers the difficulties of living in a female body.

  • Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender: Fine digs into the science behind gender differences, and argues that we are using unclear science to support, not challenge, ingrained ideas about gender.

  • Lauren Winner, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis: this memoir grapples with continuing to trust God when that trust feels impossible.

  • Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved: suddenly confronted with her own mortality after years researching the prosperity gospel, Bowler meditates on how we live when nothing makes sense anymore.

Twentieth Century and Beyond: Theology and Spirituality

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means that I earn a small percentage if you, dear reader, purchase a book through the link.

Tagged: books | gender | theology

Men Reading Women: Practical Suggestions

Men reading in the woods
Men reading in the woods, 1922 | via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Part 4 of a five-part series on why men may be reluctant to read women and how even well-intentioned men default to reading other men. Read part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

On Monday, I offered some reasons why men (and women) should read more books by and about women. But how do you go about doing this, if you’re realizing that your Goodreads history is overbalanced towards men?

First, and probably most obviously, find books by women on topics or in genres that you enjoy. Enjoy literary fiction? Check out female nominees and past winners for the National Book Award or the Man Booker Prize. Enjoy genre fiction? Browse a publisher’s catalog or the library shelves for books by women in that genre.

If you’re looking for theology or spiritual writing by women, many websites and publications have reading lists. Try this one, from Christianity Today, or this one, from Christians for Biblical Equality, or this one from Daily Theology.

Next, be willing to try new types of books. Give Pastrix or Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis a chance. Try a family drama — I’m fond of Liane Moriarty at the moment, and it’s hard to go wrong with Jennifer Weiner. These books are by women, about women, and marketed to women, but they capture the human experience and are just fun reads.

Not everyone likes everything; you may decide that a particular genre is not for you. But you may also find a whole new type of book to enjoy.

Once you find books by women that you enjoy, tell people about them! Both my husband and I are in (separate) theology book clubs (yes, we’re nerds), and we both work to notice when our reading lists veer too heavily male and to make alternate suggestions. And fortunately, our friends will do the same, which means that we also receive new recommendations.

And, as you are able, purchase books by women. Publishers want to make money, so creating a demand for a certain type of book will encourage publishers to publish and promote women writers.

Finally, especially if you have young children in your life, work to normalize reading about and empathizing with girls for both girls and boys. Shannon Hale has heartbreaking stories about parents, teachers and librarians who steer (or shove) boys away from books about girls. Even though we not only allow but encourage girls to read about boys, the reverse is not true.

So if you have children, or work with children, or are in a position to recommend books to children, don’t always give books about trucks and monsters to boys. Give them books like The Princess in Black or The Princess and the Pizza or Journey, or recommend them. Suggest that boys read about Serena Williams and Ruth Bader Ginsberg (the Who Was …? series is great for elementary schoolers). Don’t just give Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls to girls; direct boys to it too.

We don’t need to replace Harry Potter and Holden Caulfield (okay, maybe Holden Caulfield). But we do need to make sure that boys and girls are expected to read about women protagonists, and that boys feel as comfortable identifying with Katniss Everdeen as girls do identifying with Harry Potter.

Changing large cultural attitudes towards women writers will be a long, slow process. Significant cultural pressure leads to the dismissal of women’s writing as fluffy, emotional or specific rather than universal, and the problem is only worse within theological and spiritual writing.

But slow as change may be, it starts with deliberate choices to value women’s voices and experiences and to reevaluate our assumptions about the values of masculinity, rationality, and objectivity. And that change can start with the simple act of picking up a book by a woman.

Come back on Monday for my list of women writers to get you started!

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means that I earn a small percentage if you, dear reader, purchase a book through the link.

Tagged: books | gender | theology

Men Reading Women: Three Reasons to Read Books by Women

Christine de Pisan instructing her son
Christine de Pisan Instructing her Son, minature from London, British Library ms. Harley 4431, c. 1413 | via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Part 3 of a five-part series on why men may be reluctant to read women and how even well-intentioned men default to reading other men. Read part 1 here and Part 2 here.

In part 1 of this series, I argued that modern American society makes it easy for men to avoid reading books by women — and that this is a problem because it devalues not just women’s contributions but women’s personhood. And in part 2, I argued that the solution cannot be for women to write like men (whatever that means), because instead of addressing the problem this solution continues to devalue women.

So how can we address these problems? What might make men more likely to read books by and about women? I will have some practical suggestions in Thursday’s post, but today I want to focus on why men should read women authors.

In the big picture, as I’ve argued, not reading books by women reinforces — intentionally or not — the idea that women are not fully human in the way that men are. But I think many men, like the writer of the Relevant article I discussed in part 1, don’t set out to either avoid or devalue women.

They (and women, too) simply swim in cultural waters that make it easy to dismiss books by women, especially spiritual or theological books written by women.1

So why should we intentionally seek out books by women? Beyond the big picture of treating women as fully human and fully capable of writing books relevant to men as well as women, I see three reasons to read women.

First, developing empathy: a growing body of research suggests that reading fiction helps us to develop empathy, sympathetic understanding of the emotions of others. Empathy makes us more kind, less likely to stereotype, better able to understand why a person may make particular choices.

From the very beginnings of their reading lives, girls read about boys and girls, developing empathy for men as well as other women. Far too often, however, boys are directed away from books about girls. Boys can identify with Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, but not Jo Marsh or Katniss Everdeen.

But limiting the characters boys and men encounter also limits the empathy they develop: the empathy extends to characters like them (male), but not to female characters and, by extension, to girls and women.2

This problem is intersectional, too — not limited to gender. When we expect everyone to identify with white men, but only women to identify with women or minorities to identify with minorities, we limit empathetic development and reinforce the sexism and racism that sees women and minorities as deviating from the norm.

Second, embracing diversity: Alongside developing empathy, reading books by and about a wide variety of people develops an appreciation for diverse perspectives and experiences.

No matter how much we know better, we easily slide into the assumption that our perspective and our experiences are normal and right. Interacting with a variety of people helps us overcome this assumption: what seems normal and obvious to us might be completely foreign to another, and we can learn from that new perspective.

We should embrace this sort of diversity in a variety of ways, but reading in particular allows us to deepen our historical perspectives. We have much to learn from writers and characters of the past, beginning with humility.

Like developing empathy, this value extends beyond the question of why we should read books by and about women. But gaining the perspective of women on their lives and experiences will enrich our own understanding of the human condition.

Third, challenging the idea that men are the norm: When society treats men as the standard of what it means to be human, the male experience is valued above the female experience. And western patriarchy makes men rational and women emotional, men able to transcend the body while women are trapped by their bodies, men capable of an objectivity that women cannot attain.

Reading and valuing women writers is a part of learning to value “feminine” characteristics. We must learn to value these traits, often gendered as feminine but in reality common to all humans, in order to integrate and value our whole human selves — mental, emotional, physical, spiritual.

To be sure, individual readers and writers will have preferences for the more intellectual or the more confessional, the more objective or the more subjective. But we need to stop imagining that books by men (and this is especially prevalent in theological and spiritual writing) are intellectual and objective and therefore better than confessional and subjective books, which are often written by women.

Theology cannot be merely intellectual; it is also lived. And the intellect is not divorced from context or free of bias; our reason is shaped by our experience, including our experience as a man or a woman. No view of God is purely rational; human beings cannot attain some sort of pure rationality.

Diversifying our reading, and especially our theological reading, helps us to see the limitations of what we consider normative and the flaws in the idea that theology based in experience is inferior to theology based in reason.

Right now, a whole host of women spiritual writers are reminding Christians that we need to pay attention to how our theologies can be lived and embodied in the world. They don’t argue that we should toss out all the church fathers, but they do remind us that beautiful intellectual systems can crumble when they meet our embodied lives — and often the flaw is in the theology, not the embodiment.

When we elevate the male and the intellectual as objective and true, we lose the wisdom gained by experience and the insights offered by our emotions. I do not mean to suggest that women are more emotional than intellectual, but in our current western culture women are more free to express their emotions and write based on experience. And instead of devaluing their perspective, we should interrogate our own assumptions about male rationality and objectivity.

To boil this post down to one reason to read more women writers: patriarchy harms not just women, but also men. When men don’t read books by and about women, their perspectives are limited, their empathy may be stunted, and they place far too much confidence in their own point of view.

Come back on Thursday for some practical suggestions on adding more women into your reading life.

  1. Women are certainly not immune to having book lists that skew towards men, particularly in theological or spiritual writing. Part of patriarchy is that the whole society values men above women; men alone are not responsible for maintaining and perpetuating patriarchal systems.

  2. Reading is not the only way to develop empathy — but it is one way to develop understanding of others, and limiting who “others” includes will also limit empathy.

Tagged: books | gender | theology

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