The one about learning new scales (Jesus Feminist study pt 1)

(Note: this post will cover the introduction and Chapter 1 of Jesus Feminist)

Right from the introduction Jesus Feminist has been blowing me away. The content is both gut punching, and extremely gentle. Already it’s a significant reminder to me that just because something is said in a gentle spirit does not mean that hard hitting truth is not contained within it. I mentioned in the introduction post that my approach to gender inequality has been more of a “turn over the tables in the temple” strategy than the harsh truth contained in gentle words strategy. What I love about Bessey’s book is how she manages to advocate the gentle words strategy without throwing away turning over the tables. Sometimes tables need to be turned over. But sometimes a gentle word approach doesn’t just turn over the tables, it burns the tables to ash. In the introduction Bessey alludes to The Table. She says,

“It’s the Table where coalitions and councils metaphorically sit in swivel chairs to discuss who is in and who is out, who is right (usually each other) and who is wrong (everyone else), and the perennial topic of whether women should be allowed to teach or preach or even read Scripture aloud.” (p.3)

Bessey goes on to advocate that we be done “lobbying for a seat at the Table.”(p.2) She would rather be with those outside of the Table. The misfits, the ones who don’t fit in, and the ones rejected by the Table. She says she is simply getting on with it; that she doesn’t worry about the Table anymore. I posted this next quote on Facebook when I was talking about this series, but I wanted to post it again because when I first read it my eyes welled up with tears and my heart constricted in my chest.

“Years ago, I practiced anger and cynicism, like a pianist practices scales, over and over.” (p. 5)

Powerful words. Words that I no longer want to be true in my own life. I want to move on from that state of mind. Reading this introduction I was reminded of a paper I wrote for a Communication Theory class in college where I applied feminist communication theory to pop culture. I drew parallels between how new feminist communication theory proposed that if certain avenues were closed off,  women should go off the beaten path and create their own paths. I used female comediennes like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as examples. Amy Poehler refuses to answer any questions in defense of women in comedy. When interviewers bring it up she rolls her eyes and talks about how boring she find the discussion. The basis of her thesis is: I’m doing funny things that people are watching. I could not care less about those that continue to perpetuate the false idea that women are not as funny as men. If they don’t want me in their movies or TV shows, that’s fine. I’m too busy being successful in my own movies and TV shows.

Sarah Bessey is advocating the same idea for women in the church. If the Table does not want us to lead, that’s fine. We’re too busy being successful in places that crave our leadership. The trick to applying this idea, at least in my own life, is doing this without anger and cynicism. As Bessey says to not “confuse critical thinking with a critical spirit, and I will practice, painfully over and over, patience and peace until my gentle answers turn away even my own wrath.” (p. 6) And yet, Bessey does not disparage the other approach. She says,

“I remain thankful for the people called to the hard work of pragmatics and iron-sharpening-iron conflict. Sometimes we turn over tables in the temple, and other times we invite conversation by starting with an apology.” (p. 7)

I read this an appeal to exercise your weak spots. If your approach tends toward turning over the tables, maybe it’s time to exercise your gentleness muscle. Conversely, if you always begin with an apology, maybe it’s time to exercise your righteous anger muscle. I know my righteous anger muscle is strong and well tended. I look forward to giving the same attention to my slightly weaker gentle spirit  muscle. With women (and men) using both muscles in equality I hope like Bessey hopes to one day “throw our arms around the people of the Table as they break up the burnished oak.” (p. 7)

So much for the introduction. I could write another 2 or 3 entries about only this part but I want to move on. Bessey spends the first chapter talking about what made her apply the term Jesus Feminist to herself. Some in the church have a hard time hearing the word feminist. It can conjure up the stuff of nightmares for some: women striding around bellowing about not needing a man, disparaging motherhood, and handing out free abortions like candy. Bessey rightly points out that feminism roots are forever entangled with strong Christian women and their commitment to creating a better world. She reminds us that, “it’s not necessary to subscribe to all the diverse-and contrary-opinions within feminism to call oneself a feminist.” (p. 13) This goes right along with theologian Dr. John G. Stackhouse Jr.’s opinion that

“Christian feminists can celebrate any sort of feminism that brings more justice and human flourishing to the world, no matter who is bringing it, since we recognize the hand of God in all that is good.” (p.13)

Near the middle of the chapter Bessey writes what I consider to be the thesis to her book. The qualifier Jesus in front of the word feminist “means I am a feminist precisely because of my lifelong commitment to Jesus and his Way.”(p.13) Like Bessey I feel that my feminism is an outright product of my relationship with Jesus. He was the first person who told me I was equal to any man. Before I ever read any Gloria Steinem, or Betty Friedan, before I heard of Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, I read the Bible. I read the Bible and learned about Miriam, Esther, Rahab, Ruth, Deborah, and all the others mentioned in Scripture. Jesus showed me my value and told me I could do great things for his kingdom from the moment I met him. I would never believe anyone who told me otherwise.

My Savior is a god of justice and wholeness. The Church can either move with God in justice and wholeness or “we can choose to prop up the world’s dead systems, baptizing injustice and power in sacred language.”(p.14) Wow! I told you this book packed a gut punch. I’m almost winded by that phrase. Go back and read it again. Wow. I pray that we as a body learn to tell the difference between the sacred and the cultural. That we not canonize cultural injustice and power by calling it Scripture and God’s will. What did Bessey learn on her journey of Jesus inspired feminism? She learned how much he loves us. I’ll let her tell us.

“In a time when women were almost silent or invisible in literature, Scripture affirms and celebrates women. Women were a part of Jesus’ teaching, part of his life. Women were there for all of it.”(p.17)

She spends the rest of the chapter going through some of the women that Jesus used and spoke through. I’m not going to go into everyone that she talks about (Seriously you should buy this book), but I wanted to highlight some of my favorites.

On the woman Jesus healed in the synagogue who was bent over: “He called her ‘daughter of Abraham,’…People had only ever heard of ‘sons of Abraham’-never daughters. But at the sound of Jesus’ words daughter of Abraham, he gave her a place to stand alongside them (p.19)

On Mary of Bethany: “Jesus defended her right learn as his disciple.”(p.19)

On the Samaritan woman at the well: “…hers is the longest personal conversation with Jesus ever recorded in Scripture…she became an evangelist.”(p.20)

On the woman who called out to Jesus in the synagogue “God bless your mother-the womb from which you came and the breasts that nursed you!” to which Jesus said that those who hear the word of God and put it into practice are even more blessed: “Women aren’t simply or only blessed by giving birth to greatness; no, we are all blessed when we hear the Word of God-Jesus-and put it into practice.”(p.20)

On the seven women described with the Greek word diakoneo: “the same word (was) used to describe the ministry of the seven men appointed to leadership in the early church.”(p.20)

On Mary Magdalene: “Before the male disciples even knew he was breathing, Jesus sent a woman to proclaim the good news; he is risen!”(p.21)

Bessey opens chapter one with a quote by the Catholic social activist and journalist Dorothy Day. Her quote was the first of many places where my eyes welled up. They welled up with thankfulness that I serve a Savior who values me not in spite of my gender, but because of it. Day writes why women were drawn to Jesus. He,

“rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend.”(p.10)

This truth is one I clutch tightly to my chest. When I see those in power treat women as unequal to the task of leading God’s church I remember my Savior saw us from the moment of his arrival. He saw the woman with the issue of blood. He saw the Samaritan woman. He saw the poor woman in the temple with her one coin. He saw Mary and Martha and Mary Magdalene, and all those who came after. He saw Priscilla, and Timothy’s mother and grandmother. He saw down the ages of time past Teresa of Avila and Juliana of Lazarevo to women like Rachel Held Evans and Christine Caine. He sees my sister Jena; he sees my mother Diane; he sees my grandmothers, my aunts, my nieces, my cousins, my best friends, my readers. He sees us all. Anyone who says we were not made for greatness denies what the Savior saw in all of us from the very beginning; power and the capacity to have an overwhelming impact on the world around us. I’ll close with this thought from Bessey near the end of chapter one.

“The lack of women among the twelve disciples isn’t prescriptive or a precedent for exclusion of women any more than the choice of twelve Jewish men excludes Gentile men from leadership.”(p.21)

These are gentle words. Yet they pack quite a punch. What have I learned from the introduction and chapter one of Jesus Feminist? That whether I use gentle words or throw over the temple tables, Jesus loves me, and he sees me.

What about you? Women, do you find it difficult to identify as feminist? Why or why not? Men do you feel comfortable calling yourself a feminist? Are you reading the book along with me? (I hope you are) what are you thoughts on it so far? Use the comments below to continue the discussion!



6 thoughts on “The one about learning new scales (Jesus Feminist study pt 1)

  1. Nico says:

    A feminist is someone who does exactly what she wants to do with her life, without being told what to do by anyone else – male OR female. If she wants to be a wife and stay-at-home mother, that’s no less or more valid than a woman who wants to have a career as well, or a woman who knows she’s doesn’t have a desire for motherhood and chooses to not have children.

    I think the notion of viewing women as inferior to men – rather than simply different – is silliness. Especially in the context of any sort of Christian-based religion. It’s like saying the God they worship made something faulty, and not worthy of reverence and respect. It’s just really dumb, for real.

    • faceparts says:

      I totally agree Barbara! There are those in the church who would say they don’t view women as inferiors, just that they are no supposed to lead the church in more “public” ways (ie preaching from the pulpit etc) But I would say that they ARE indirectly saying that women are less capable than men.

      • Nico says:

        Bingo! I believe in balance. Men and women are different, and when they work together toward a common goal, with mutual respect, that’s when the most gets done.

  2. sandy hay says:

    This is beautiful Janelle. From the time I was a child I knew Jesus loved ME. But my world of the 60’s had much more to say. I didn’t identify myself as a feminist during those years. I wouldn’t have considered it. I struggled with just who I was in the world…then a military wife…a world that had no room for wives’ with a voice. And i knew no one outside of that world. I stumbled along for years. Bit by bit I started to read Christian woman who molded me (but I didn’t dare tell anyone). Now with the internet and Facebook and lots of amazing blogs (like this one 🙂 and age I’m not shy or fearful or whatever word fits to admit I am a feminist .It’s freeing. God made me a woman with plans for me both inside and outside of the church. He gave me a voice to use for him, to speak a perspective that it so lacking . And I”ll use it. I could write more but I’ll save it for your next chapters 😉

    • faceparts says:

      Thank you so much for you comment! I will be going into this in more detail when I cover chapter 3, but it was women like you and all the others that I came across in my childhood that I now see helped shape my view of women in the church. As a child, I was surrounded by women who shaped my theology and understanding of God in powerful way. It came as quite a shock to me to discover that there were those who called such leadership into question. I’m so grateful for that childhood, because I think for girls that grew up with the opposite message they have to start at less than zero and “relearn” the actual call God has on their lives.

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