Thursday, January 22, 2015

‘Jesus Feminist’ (Book Review)

“Jesus feminist”? The title struck me as a bit awkward. I think most people would’ve said “Christian feminist” or “feminist Christian,” even if they thought it was a bit of an oxymoron. But my curiosity was piqued, so I bought a copy. A few pages in, and I realized that I had expected something different.

For those of you not familiar with blogger Sarah Bessey, she’s known in the more “egalitarian” circles when it comes to discussing the roles of women in the Christian church. Her book title, Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women – Exploring God’s Radical Notion That Women Are People, Too (Howard Books, 2013), suggested to me an in-depth study of various arguments and biblical passages, concluding with a defense of female preachers and church leaders in today’s churches. That’s not what it turned out to be, and there are both “pros” and “cons” to that.

Bessey starts out painting a very familiar scene: Christians, on all sides, emotionally and spiritually wounded from the perpetual war over gender roles, marriage, and the family. The result is defensiveness – proof-texting, cynicism, name-calling, and “consigning-to-hell” – where there should be love, kindness, and a genuine concern for those suffering around us. She seems to be calling us, at least for now, to admit that no of us has all the answers and that we have to allow each other times to grow and mature in our understanding. We need to “agree to disagree,” so to speak, and take the opportunity to get some real godly work done. There are orphans, AIDS patients, and sex trafficking victims who need our help, while nothing is gained for the kingdom by attacking our fellow believers with the same old tiresome arguments.

The solution? Christian women (regardless of their views on women’s roles) have a great opportunity before them. Enough with the sentimentalizing of marriage and motherhood that leaves no place for the singles and childless. Women have more to offer than the crafting, fashion shows, and fill-in-the-blank workbooks that masquerade as Bible studies and women’s ministries. Instead we can make a profound impact, rolling up our sleeves and serving our communities in the ways God wants us to.

That was my big positive takeaway from the book. To be honest, I’m not sure that was exactly what she had in mind. If you think the expanded title sounds a bit like rambling, then I’d say that it accurately reflects the book’s content. Bessey writes in a billowy style that might be more suitable for blogging than a book, which needs a more concise approach. This also crosses over in the book’s content, which was more messy than focused. While she effectively calls for a truce in the introduction, she tries to resurrect the debate in later chapters, tackling biblical passages instructing women to be silent in the church and to submit to their husbands. And in doing so, she gives the same weak, tiresome arguments we’re all familiar with. In addition, she seems to flop back and forth on her positions, so it’s not clear where she stands on the present state of women’s ministries, the lauding of motherhood in the church, and the effectiveness of women (or men for that matter) in preaching positions. I was left with the impression that she still needed to give herself some time to make up her own mind on these issues before writing about them for others.

I also need to call out Bessey on being needlessly divisive. She sets up a “straw man argument” insisting that “women are people, too.” This entirely misrepresents her opposition. While I have come across some who insist that women are to be owned and treated like animals, they certainly aren’t the majority of those who adhere to rigid gender roles (and often tend not to even identify as “Christian” anyway). Associating Christians who disagree with her with that view is understandably a major turn off to some readers who might otherwise take heart to her other points. In the end, Jesus Feminist will more than likely discourage any fruitful discussion among the various sides. This I think was the biggest disappointment. If another book is forthcoming, I hope the author puts more effort into building bridges than roadblocks.