The Good Girls

Barr opens this chapter with a gnarly cautionary tale from a medieval sermon:

The story goes like this: Sex was considered impure, so medieval Christians were encouraged to abstain from sex during holy times (which was a lot of time on the medieval calendar). A woman wanted to have sex with her husband on Easter morning. He said no. She was so overcome by desire that she tried to seduce her brother-in-law, who also denied her. Mad with lust, she grabbed a sword and cut off his head. When her husband found her, standing with the sword dripping blood, she declared “Lo, all this I have done, you have made me do!”(151)

The point of the sermon was that while we should abstain from sex during holy times, the “marriage debt” is real and should not have been denied. Barr writes “because of the natural weakness of the female body, medieval women were considered more prone to sin, especially sexual sin” (151). In other words, by denying his wife sex, the man caused her to commit the sin of murder, driven mad by her unfulfilled desire.

As a Catholic, this is the sexual trope with which I am most familiar: the Temptress. The more sexual a woman is, the more sinful. After the safety of our children, it’s hard to find a more indelible failure in the Catholic Church than the enduring belief that women are sexually fallen.

But Barr states that this is not the same way evangelical churches view women. Pre-Reformation, women’s sexuality was a sinful temptation, but a woman could eschew marriage and family, enter a convent and be heard as a doctor of the Church. Post-Reformation, women’s sexuality was a fragile, sacred calling to be protected at all costs; voluntary virginity was devalued as “spinsterhood” and a good woman moved demurely from her father’s authority to a husband’s. Barr says that “patriarchy shapeshifted” between the pre-and post-Reformation and “Instead of women finding holiness through virginity, they now found it in the marriage bed. The most sacred vessels were no longer the men and women who rose about their sex to serve God; the most holy institution was now the holy household”(152-53).

Again, as a Catholic, we do not carry these attitudes about the “holy household” in general, at least not in any way that places the father and husband in such a locus of control; marriage is a sacrament and vocation for both men and woman, and children are a result of that sacramental union. In the last 20 years, the traditional conservative side of our church, overly influenced by evangelical politics, has embraced more of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant ethics. Mistakenly, as Pope Francis continues to admonish them.

Regardless—both of these attitudes resulted in a social norming of female modesty as evidence of holiness. In this context, I mean the word “modesty” to apply not just to clothing, but an entire way of being female.

Barr tells the story of taking a group of girls to a church camp in the sticky heat of summer. Some of them wore tank tops. They were asked to change by camp directors: “’The straps on their tank tops are too thin. Their bra straps will show. We need them to cover up’”(154). They provided the girls with giant, shapeless men’s tshirts as an alternative.

Barr says that her girls had followed the dress code which allowed sleeveless tops. While the camp directors acknowledged this, they still wanted the girls to cover up. Barr refused, multiple times. But then she was confronted with this: “Modesty honors God, and didn’t the girls want to honor God?” (155). They covered up.

This concept of modesty as a reflection of “good girl” status stems from the cult of domesticity of the 19th century. Familiar to us through books and movies, this social norm “elevat(ed) the home as the safest space for respectable women” (156). Young girls were taught by governesses and finishing schools the necessary skills to provide a peaceful, well-functioning home for their future husbands.

This reminded me of a scene in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  Austen was famously critical of social mores in 1810s England. Haughty Caroline Bingley, trying to highlight Lizzie’s lack of “training”, describes an “accomplished woman” thusly:  A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.” Darcy’s reply: “And to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” The sarcasm is lost on Caroline but would not have been missed by Austen’s female readers of the early 19th century. Nor the fact that Austen’s most accomplished characters are always the most flawed.

Barr argues that the modern (post-1990s) emphasis on biblical womanhood in evangelical churches is really a return to the cult of domesticity, another example where evangelicals read culture into the Bible. As I pointed out in my first post, the evangelical definition of biblical womanhood emphasizes behavior over spirit. A home-schooling mom with a clean house and the soul of a harpy is of less concern than a working mom with a heart of gold. To this point, prominent female evangelical writers and speakers (aka working moms) tie themselves into knots to present primarily as wives and mothers, obscuring their work behind their “holy modesty”. Barr writes that “being a wife and mother gives evangelical women credibility” and that most of them built fame from “the poured foundation of marriage and family” (168). This speaks to Barr’s point that “women adapt to the ever-changing rules of patriarchy” (169).

I believe this particular adaptation comes with a high cost. Many evangelical women are working within a framework they did not invent, but it often feels disingenuous to me, a pernicious type of virtue-signaling by a certain social class of Christian women. The primacy of their wife- and motherhood is a lie—they are moguls—but it makes their voices palatable to evangelical men. Who it hurts is other Christian women without their opportunities and/or resources, or who are struggling just to do the wife and mom part.  It is an impossible benchmark for most women to hit. We have only begun to understand the impact this constant comparison has on the mental and emotional health of women, but it feels like another type of oppression.

I want to recognize that this is a privileged conversation from start to finish, largely devoid of any consideration of race or class. Barr quotes an infamous 2018 blog post from The Transformed Wife (www.thetransformedwife.com, visit at your own risk), written by Lori Alexander:  “The chart, titled ‘Should Women Have Careers?’ went viral in 2018. Her answer, clearly, was no. In Alexander’s opinion, a stay-at-home mom has a ‘fulfilling life’ and ‘her husband and children rise up and call her blessed’, whereas a working mom has a life that is ‘falling apart’” (172). It’s hard to imagine a more privileged point of view which simultaneously shames mothers everywhere and ignores the very real struggles of class and race.

It is no surprise that the women who espouse their own imprisonment work tirelessly to justify it. Human nature requires us to be better than someone.

More on that later.

The Lost Women of the Middle Ages

(#5 in a series)

*In this chapter, Barr asserts that Mary Magdalen is the same as Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. The medieval church believed this as well, thanks to a sermon by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century. Since then, Catholic biblical scholars have found more evidence to support that they were not the same woman and in the Catholic church, we tend to draw a line between the Marys (Mama Mary, Mary Mag, Mary of Bethany) as a way of making the point that Jesus purposefully included women in his ministry*

Mary Mag was a prominent figure in all four Gospels. She does not fear the Romans. She is present at the foot of the Cross. She is the first to see the risen Lord. She is the first one to whom he speaks. Barr calls her “the apostle of the apostles”(82) since it was she who carried the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to them.

There is precedent in the Old Testament for the role she plays in the life of Christ: loyal like Ruth, strong like Esther, patient like Hannah. These are the women God consistently puts in front of us in the Bible. They are Proverbs 31 women—grounded, faithful, taking care of business, helping others.

The Medieval church revered these biblical matriarchs. Barr writes the church “was simply too close in time to forget the significant roles women played in establishing the Christian faith throughout the remnants of the Roman Empire” (88). While patriarchal and classist, the medieval world was still an “all hands on deck” existence and the role of women was clear: CEO of the castle, with the keys to fit every lock hanging down her skirt; midwife; healer; weaver; grower; alewife, abbess. We think of sending widows or spinsters to the “nunnery” as a medieval banishment, but convents were safe havens for widows, the abused and young girls who would otherwise be used as pawns in war and politics. Women in convents learned to read and write, and from this tradition we have four of the Doctors of the Catholic Church, among whom we count St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas: St Hildegard de Bingen (b. 1098), St Catherine of Siena (b. 1347), St Teresa of Avila (b. 1515) and later, St Therese of Lisieux (b. 1873). Their works were and are widely read and taught within the Catholic Church.

And then there’s the Golden Legend, a 13th century book about saints by Jacobus De Voraigne.

If you’re familiar with the lives of Catholic saints, then you know they can be a bit…fantastical.  Especially the early church through the medieval period. Take for instance the story about St Martha—in the medieval version, she accompanied her sister Mary Mag/Mary of Bethany to France where, as Mary was preaching to the people, Martha encountered a dragon eating a man on the beach. She “sprinkled  holy water on the beast, confronted the demoniac creature with the cross and calmly tied it up”(83). Then she took it into town where the folks stabbed it to death and declared her their heroine.

This sounds like the Martha of the Bible—practical, capable, focused. Martha was a Proverbs 31 woman who handled her business. Look closely at the words she speaks to Jesus when he arrives too late to save her brother in John: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. A statement of fact. Then she says [But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you (21-22). Martha is not suggesting. She is telling. She doesn’t think Jesus can raise her brother. She expects he will.

This is not the Martha that evangelical women know today. Barr references Sara Mae’s 2016 book Having a Martha Home the Mary Way: 31 Days to a Clean Home and a Satisfied Soul: “Mae includes ‘Mary challenges’ to encourage the spiritual development of women and ‘Martha Challenges’ to inspire women to clean different parts of their home” (81-82).

Martha and Mary Magdalen are not the only women honored in the medieval church who have been de-emphasized in the evangelical church today.

St Paula (b.347), who left her children to answer God’s calling and helped translate the Vulgate.

St Lucy (b.283) who dedicated her virginity to God and stood firm, refusing to marry; as punishment, her eyes were removed, and she is often pictured carrying them on a plate.

St Margaret of Antioch (d.304) who dedicated herself to God, and was imprisoned for refusing to marry a Roman governor. She was attacked by a dragon in her cell, who ate her. Margaret stayed calm in the mouth of the dragon, prayed for God to save her, and the dragon exploded, setting her free (79-80).

St Genevieve of Paris (b.422), who through a “prayer marathon” is credited with saving Paris from the Huns and converting the city to Christianity.

St Brigid of Kildare (b. 451) famous for the miracle of the never-ending butter and her great spreading cloak, and a foundress of multiple abbeys in Ireland.

All of these women—and this is just a small sampling of the lives of women saints—stood in defiance of the rule of men for the love of God and triumphed. Every single one. They walked in the world as role models of faith and light, and they often laid down their lives in exchange. These are the women who gave life to Hildegard, Catherine, Theresa and more.

In the Catholic church, we know them still. We honor them as men and women of tremendous faith on feast days and invoke them as intercessors in our prayers. Not in the same way we did in the medieval period, but they are there just the same.

This is not the case with Protestants. The Saints were an explicit target of the Reformation, rejected as idolatry (this is a corruption of the doctrine of Sainthood in the Catholic Church; we do not worship them. We recognize them as paragons of faith and obedience to God, and as such ask them to intercede on our behalf). They disappeared from Protestantism, and with them, a history that included women as heroes of the Christian faith.

A final point: It is worth noting that during the medieval period, the Catholic church evolved the idea of priesthood to include celibacy, and then used this to effectively exclude women from ordination, thanks to St Augustine who equated sex and child-bearing with Original Sin. The four women recognized as doctors of the church were nuns. My church was not a paragon of equality by any stretch of the imagination, just as guilty as Protestants of pushing women from leadership.

Uniquely Biblical

(This is number 3 in a series)

CHAPTER 1: THE BEGINNING OF PATRIARCHY

In chapter 1, Barr tells a story that blew my mind.

First, some background:  complementarianism is a theological view from the Abrahamic religions that places men and women in different but complementary roles in marriage, family and religious life.  Specifically, in the evangelical and fundamentalist Christian faiths: Men lead; women follow. These roles are boundaried by the belief that Adam was created first and therefore possessed the New Testament headship to which Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 11: 3; in the “Wives be subordinate to your husbands” admonition from Ephesians 5; and also by the curse that God places upon Eve in Genesis 3:16.

Historians call this patriarchy, a system of social control that evolved in part from our hunter/gatherer roots. Historically, women were/are viewed as inferior beings in terms of intellect and strength; good for birthing babies and keeping hearth and home, but not much else. The social challenge to this construct is feminism, or the belief that men and women should be treated and valued equally.

I am greatly simplifying this part for the sake of space, but first wave feminism is dated to the 19th century, and closely linked to other social justice movements of the time (abolition, temperance, child labor). It’s been less than 200 years since the “ground-breaking” idea that no human should be the property of another—and the century long push towards welcoming oppressed minorities, women among them, into the educational and work worlds, and legislating agency over their own bodies, money and children.

Back to the story: In 2006 and 2007, Russel Moore (who was at one time the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention), encouraged evangelicals to take back the word patriarchy, explaining that the term “complementarianism” had basically been a nod to political correctness. Patriarchy, said Moore, is a Biblical word.

This confused me. Patriarchy is in the Bible, but it’s not biblical. It’s historical. The Adam and Eve story doesn’t set social precedent; it explains reality for a primitive society. How else does early man process that women bleed, and have pain in childbirth? I used to tell my students “Wouldn’t you think she had made your God mad?” More critically: Eve is not the only female chaos agent enshrined in mythology. The ways of women were a mystery in the ancient world. 

Granted, my perspective is Catholic and we now recognize the first 16 chapters of Genesis as origin myth for the Hebrew people, a stance beautifully explained in our Catechism, 279-289. Barr had a more difficult mountain to climb as a literalist. Her faith requires her to accept Genesis as historical fact.  This created a dissonance between what she knew as a doctor of history, and what her church was asking her to believe: patriarchy is uniquely Biblical.

Uniquely biblical—and therefore ordained by God. This is the part that blew my mind. The Catholic church is no paragon of equality, and certainly complicit in tolerating and even extending oppressive patriarchy, but there has always been logic and sense in our theology. Women are welcome in ministry, if not on the altar. Women are doctors of the church. There is no pressure from the pulpit for women to be submissive, to stay home, to remain uneducated. I had no idea this was the doctrine in evangelical churches.

It’s an incorrect doctrine, of course. But is it wrong, or a lie? The first speaks to misinterpretation; the second to purposeful manipulation.

Barr spends the rest of the chapter explaining her path to understanding: from the Epic of Gilgamesh; to the male grad student who refused to acknowledge her authority over him in a classroom in an extension of his “headship”;  to Russel Moore’s laughable distinction between “pagan” and “Christian” patriarchy: “(W)omen should not submit to men in general (pagan patriarchy), but wives should submit to their husbands (Christian patriarchy)”; to wondering if–since patriarchy is clearly not biblically ordained but existed everywhere—patriarchal structures are actually a manifestation of human sin.

Oddly, Barr turns to the letters of St Paul for the answers.

Biblical Womanhood: A Book Study

I want to tell you about this book:

There are a lot of reasons I’m reading it, firstly because my dad sent it to me marked “for discussion when we see you next”.

Also, because I am a feminist Catholic—in that exact order. I internalized my feminism before I internalized my Catholic faith, so I tend to view faith through a feminist lens. This is very different from viewing feminism through a Catholic lens, or through an evangelical one, as Barr does.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s easier to be me than her—I showed up cynical and fought the catechism every step of the way. I never expected my Christian faith to be a beautiful, life-giving shelter and was gratefully surprised to find that it is. Barr had to “wake up” to the patriarchy inherent in her evangelical Christian upbringing through her historical studies, and the resulting disillusionment shook her out of her church.

To clarify—her church is the Southern Baptists; she calls them “evangelicals” but that term feels wider and deeper than the ways she uses it to refer to a very conservative set of patriarchal, sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God beliefs. I know evangelicals who do not ascribe to these beliefs on any level, but her labels are reflective of her experience.

I strongly feel though that all women of the Christian faith have things to learn from this book and the ways in which womanhood is reflected in the Bible. Most of us know what we’ve told, sitting in the pews, or in Sunday School classes, and we accepted it. How many of us have taken a deeper dive into the history and context of the Bible, or the 2000 years of clarification and scholarship that exists to help us know and understand the word of God? How many of us really process that every Bible we hold in our hands has been translated, or questioned who does the translating? Clicked the “About” tab on websites for seminaries where our priests and pastors are educated? Or asked ourselves “Who is telling this story, and what do they have to gain from telling it this way?”

I’m not an expert but I can teach anything. And I’d like to walk this you. Eight Chapters. One a week. I hope you’ll join me.