(#2 in a series. Please refer back to home page of blog for earlier posts)
The Introduction lays out Barr’s experience growing up Southern Baptist in Texas. She has a PhD in history with a focus on European women and medieval England. Her husband is a Baptist minister who was fired from his position for petitioning the elders to allow women in ministry. In the Baptist church, and based loosely on the letters of Paul, women are not allowed to preach at church (I Cor 14:34) or teach men (1 Tim: 2:12). His firing was the initiating event for this book. She states upfront that this book is aimed at evangelicals, and that she still considers herself to be one. I almost put it down.
Then this blew the top off my head:
Cultural assumptions and practices regarding womanhood are read into the biblical text, rather than the biblical text being read within its own historical and cultural context (6).
I’ll do it again, with my own punctuation:
Cultural assumptions and practices regarding womanhood are READ INTO the biblical text, rather than the biblical text BEING READ WITHIN ITS OWN HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL CONTEXT.
She put into words something that I have been feeling for a couple of years now—that many leadership structures in Christian faiths are busy making God into their image instead of themselves into an image of God. Who among us has not at some point sat in a pew listening to the guy in collar explain something and thought “is that really what it means?”
I had this struggle with the traditional telling of Mary as Mother Dearest, Mother Fairest. We should all be obedient like Mary was a refrain of my Catholic school upbringing, a definition of womanhood as submissive, quiet, docile. When I looked at the statues and pictures of Mary, I saw an impossible ideal. The women in my life were not like this Mary. I was not like this Mary. She didn’t even feel real. If that’s what God wanted from me–silent, submissive sacrifice–then he should have made me differently.
Then came my feminism, which taught me that the definition of womanhood has always been contested and controlled by people trying to cram every woman into a box. I learned to question the box makers, and what they gain from making the boxes. Most importantly, I noticed that no woman who changed the world ever behaved like docile Mary. Not outside the church, but not inside the church either. They tended to be confident, strong risk-takers who upset the status quo.
It was not until I became a wife and mother that I set out to read and understand the Mary story for myself. What I found was a bare bones telling of the conception and birth of Jesus into which had been read a certain obedient ideal of womanhood. This ideal does not exist on the page. There is certainly room for this interpretation, if we don’t know our history and context. But we do know our history and context.
God asked Mary to appear in Jewish society as an unwed mother, which was a killing offense. He asked her to tell her parents and her future husband that she was pregnant. He asked her to endure the stares, gossip and shame others would try to heap upon her. And that was just before the baby was born. If Mary’s fiat is only a blind act of obedience to an authority figure, then it lacks free will, and as such becomes meaningless.
For her fiat to be extraordinary, her faith has to be greater than her fear, meaning she knew what was being asked of her and chose it anyway.
Boom. All of a sudden, Mary was visible to me.
“Being obedient like Mary” has nothing to do with being quiet or loud, big or small, educated or uneducated, working or staying home. Mary is not an example of how women should behave. She is an example of how women should believe.
Interpreting Mary’s obedience as subservience is reading social assumptions into the Scripture where they do not exist.
Mary is a much more central figure in Catholicism than she is in Protestantism, so Barr’s disillusionments stemmed from the concept of complementarianism, and how that doctrine is used to restrict evangelical women from a full participation in the fruits of the faith.
She stands on the shoulders of Rachel Held Evans in challenging this tenet of evangelicalism. Evans did it with her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood in which she basically exposed the silliness of reading Scripture with no cultural or historical context (including standing at the entrance to her hometown holding a sign that read “Dan is Awesome”, in accordance with the Proverbs 31 directive that she keep her husband’s name good at the city gates).
Barr’s book is more researched and academic. She doesn’t question whether Scripture is sacred and holy. She’s not here to crush Paul’s letters. For her, the Bible is the Word of God. But she does have her sights set on the men who manipulate scripture to their own ends and the women who support them.