When Evangelicalism Was Egalitarian

Remember those days? Neither do I.

When American evangelicalism arose in New England in the 1740s, it was a radical movement based on gender equality. Evangelical women preached, voted in their congregations, and spoke on an equal level with men. In fact, the profoundly egalitarian nature of eighteenth century New England evangelicalism completely horrified those in mainstream culture. Early evangelicals, though, reveled in rejecting conventions, and that included rejecting the hierarchies of age, theological training, and gender.

I can’t even express how much I wish evangelicals would go back to rejecting the conventions of the oppressors instead of aligning with them. Apparently, though, that’s exactly the reason evangelicals largely reject gender equality today:

The American Revolution sparked a desire for respectability among evangelical men, and they reacted by working to bring their customs and beliefs more in line with the mainstream. This meant rejecting feminine aspects of their religion, endorsing patriarchy, and silencing outspoken women. Thus this short period of dramatic female religious equality drew to a close, and by the end of the century evangelical women were silenced in their congregations and even sin had come to be gendered feminine.

Birth Control: The Movie

Billing itself as “the definitive film on the subject of birth control and it’s [sic] impact on the Church, marriage, and family”, I strongly suspect this film will be definitive of nothing except the conservative evangelical mania for aping the dogma of the Republican Party instead of actually reading the Bible. This is from the film website:

We live in a culture where there is no fundamental difference on the issue of child prevention between the church of Jesus Christ and unbelievers. The fruit of our contraceptive culture is rancid and many voices are calling for a restoration of the church. In order to effectively communicate the truth about birth control and it’s [sic] impact on the church, marriage, and family, we have to ask two questions: How Did We Get Here, and Is It Up to Us?

My Further Questions:

  1. Why does there need to be a difference between the Church and the rest of the culture on the issue of preventing pregnancy?
  2. Did you think we wouldn’t spot your attempt to conflate contraception and hating children (“child prevention”)?
  3. What does it mean to have a “contraceptive culture”?
  4. How does restoration of the Church have anything to do with contraception?
  5. Is it possible that you’re just throwing around buzzwords and scare terms to trick us into believing contraception is a threat to our beliefs?
  6. Should people who aren’t even capable of distinguishing between possessives and contractions really be allowed to make movies?

All right, I got a little cheap, but so did they.

Via Libby Anne.

♀ Rachel Held Evans v. Scholasticism

Image courtesy of the Biblical Womanhood Launch Team.

Image courtesy of the Biblical Womanhood Launch Team.

During my one year of seminary I had to do a group project on a theological system; my group ended up with Covenant Theology. The project required us to teach an entire class session on Covenant Theology at some point during the semester, so we had to know what we were talking about. When we split up the work, I took the history section, because I like history.

Covenant Theology, for those unfamiliar, explains God’s interactions with humanity by referring to three covenants he has made with his people: the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, and the covenant of redemption. While too multi-faceted and nuanced to discuss here, the important thing to understand is that Covenant Theology is a framework for interpreting the Bible. One of the expressions of that framework, Calvinism, claims over 75 million adherents worldwide.

Most people boil down Calvinism to its Five Points, known among Calvinists as “the doctrines of grace”. While somewhat reductive, they are not inaccurate and do provide a simple shorthand for the ideology. The Five Points are:

  1. Total Depravity: All people are inherently sinful and unable on their own to choose God.
  2. Unconditional Election: God has, from eternity past, chosen those to whom he planned to give salvation (“the elect”).
  3. Limited Atonement: The atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ death applies only to the elect.
  4. Irresistable Grace: God’s calls the elect to himself through the Holy Spirit regardless of their own resistance to his call.
  5. Perseverance of the Saints: The elect cannot thwart God’s calling by falling from grace.

If some of that sounds a little extreme, that’s partly because I left out all the nuance for lack of space. Unfortunately, it’s also because Calvinism is a little extreme, due mostly to the hermeneutic of its era of origin.

Calvinism (and Covenant Theology) developed during the Reformation, beginning as an argument over double predestination, the belief that God has pre-determined the eternal destiny not only of the elect but also of the non-elect. In other words, God has already decided (quite some time ago) whom he is going to save and whom he is going to condemn to hell. This belief derived from parts of the Bible such as Romans 9:14–18:

Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses,

“I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.”

So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it.

For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.

On the other hand, the Bible also contains repeated calls for people to repent and accept God’s offer of salvation:

Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away. (Acts 3:19)

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” (Acts 16:31)

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let anyone who hears this say, “Come.” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life. (Revelation 22:17)

If we are so fatally flawed that we are incapable of choosing God, why does God ask us to choose him? And if God has already determined who he will save and damn, why does he urge us to repent and be saved?

John Calvin responded to this dilemma with a theology that his followers eventually distilled into the above Five Points. (Calvin’s actual theological writings are much longer, more thorough, and more nuanced.) That theology ushered in modern Covenant Theology.

At this point you might be asking why all of this overly-analytical academic discussion was even necessary, since the important thing is that God does call people to himself, and they do come. The answer: scholasticism, the then-prevalent approach to interpreting the Bible, which focused on resolving apparent paradoxes in order to construct a watertight system of theology.

The idea that God might say two contradictory things could not be allowed to persist in under scholasticism, which therefore developed the habit of approaching the Bible itself as a systematic theology whose components needed to be analyzed and rationalized in order to attain cohesion. Unfortunately for all of us, this kind of hermeneutic has persisted into the present, eroded slightly along with our general capability for academic rigor of any kind.[1]

I just finished A Year of Biblical Womanhood, a new book by Rachel Held Evans chronicling the 12 months she spent studying the Bible’s statements to and about women, interpreting them all as literally applicable to our time, and attempting to follow them all according to this understanding. Along the way she interviews a sister wife in a polygamist family, attends a Quaker service, corresponds with an Orthodox Israeli Jewish woman, spends the first three days of her period living in a tent, prepares and hosts a Passover meal, calls her husband “Master” and praises him at the entrance to their town, and cultivates a gentle and quiet spirit by refraining from yelling at the TV during football games. I highly recommend the book, which is both instructive and entertaining.

While Evans was primarily searching for a biblical description of what it means to be a woman, this quest involved significant Bible study, and the question of competing hermeneutics is resultingly a strong secondary theme of the book. Not content with simply reading the Bible, Evans consulted every resource she could find to inform her interpretation:

I took my research way too seriously, combing through feminist, conservative, and liberal commentaries, and seeking out Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant perspectives on each issue. I spoke with modern-day women practicing ancient biblical mandates in their own lives—a polygamist, a pastor, a Quiverfull daughter, an Orthodox Jew, an Amish grandmother. I scoured the Bible, cover to cover, isolating and examining every verse I could find about mothers, daughters, widows, wives, concubines, queens, prophetesses, and prostitutes.

This research proved the most fascinating part of the book to me, information-driven Christian that I am. I discovered early in my adulthood that acquiring new facts about the Bible significantly alters my perception of its message and meaning and, correspondingly, the expression of my faith.

For example, early in Biblical Womanhood, Evans learns from an Orthodox Jewish woman named Ahava that the Hebrew expression in Genesis 2 translated in the King James Version as “help meet” is Ezer k’gnedo. Modern Jews translate these words as “the help that opposes”. Evans further discovers that Ezer (the “help” part of the phrase) most frequently occurs in the Old Testament with reference to “God as the helper of Israel”, more than suggesting that the complementarian concept of the woman’s role as subordinate helper to her husband must look outside Genesis 2 for its foundation.

Later, Evans tells the story of Huldah, the prophetess who validated the discovery of the Book of the Law during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. I’ve always been bad at keeping biblical timelines straight in my head, so I had never realized before that Huldah lived concurrently with the prophets Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk—all men. Far from being a last resort, Huldah was approached instead of four other male prophets so important they each authored books of the Bible. Yet I’ve never seen or heard her name mentioned by a pastor, professor, or writer except when reading aloud from 2 Kings 22. Although Evans does not say it explicitly, it’s hard not to feel that conservative Christians have unofficially erased Huldah from the Bible, along with the other nine female prophets it mentions.

While I probably could have figured out Huldah’s chronology with a short perusal of an Old Testament timeline on the internet, learning the background of 1 Timothy 2, in which Paul informs Timothy that he does not let women teach or have authority over men, requires more scholarship than most Christians have time for:

Of particular concern to Paul was a group of young widows who had infiltrated the church and developed a reputation for dressing promiscuously, sleeping around, gossiping, spreading unorthodox ideas, interrupting church services with questions, mooching off the church’s widow fund, and generally making common floozies of themselves (1 Timothy 5). Scholars believe these women may have been influenced by the popular Roman fertility cults of Artemis that encouraged women to flaunt their sexuality and freedom to a degree that scandalized even the Roman establishment, hardly known for its prudish morals.

Knowing this bit of historical information helps us understand Paul’s instruction that women should remain silent: concern for maintaining the Church’s reputation to outsiders and preventing paganism from contaminating the true Gospel:

“We are thus led to the conclusion that when Paul asks women to be silent… he is not talking about ordinary Christian women; rather, he has a specific group of women in mind,” wrote theologian Scot McKnight. “His concern is with some untrained, morally loose, young widows, who, because they are theologically unformed, are teaching unorthodox ideas.”

Oddly enough, as Evans points out, no one ever preaches on another verse in 1 Timothy 2: verse 8, in which Paul says, “In every place of worship, I want men to pray with holy hands lifted up to God, free from anger and controversy.” In addition to ignoring the exhortation to avoid anger and controversy among believers who worship together—probably the real point of this verse—nearly every Christian man disregards the instruction to lift up his hands when praying. Literal interpretation apparently does not extend quite that far.

Nor do you ever hear, at least in most evangelical or mainline churches, a biblical apology for polygamy, requiring women to cover their heads during church services (or possibly all the time), forcing virgins to marry their rapists, or fathers selling their daughters into slavery to escape poverty. As Evans says in her introduction:

Despite insistent claims that we don’t “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible we take seriously, using the word biblical prescriptively like this almost always involves selectivity.

Taking everything in the Bible at face value, as Western conservative Christians—still living in the shadow of scholasticism—claim to do, would result in the kind of bizarre lifestyle that Rachel Held Evans imposed upon herself for a year. No one actually interprets every part of the Bible as literally applicable to our culture and time, though; we tend to find in it the things we expect or want to find, conveniently validating the habits and values we already have.

But even to be totally consistent about interpreting the Bible “literally” would only camouflage the true flaw in our whole hermeneutic: that scholasticism, with its systematic, analytical, paradox-allergic approach to interpretation, has no business anywhere near the Bible. Our scriptures are a big, messy collection of many authors writing to varying audiences in diverse cultures at disparate points in history and in multiple genres. They are not a book of facts or list of rules written down in an orderly fashion by God so we would know exactly what he wanted us to do in every situation at every time. Jesus came (and will eventually return) for the very opposite purpose—to free us from the sort of relationship with God that survives through rigid structures and fear-based commandments. God is not interested in telling us what to do; he is interested in us, and by extension, what kind of people we are.

And fortunately, the Bible is much better at telling us what kind of people to be than it is at telling us what to do, being a story of stories about God and his interactions with us and those who preceded us. By telling us about himself, God is indirectly describing who he wants us to become. Sometimes he does this by sharing poetry; other times he tells us fantastical or shocking tales.

In both the Old and New Testaments, God often described to our spiritual ancestors exactly what he wanted them to do in their specific situations. When we interpret these parts of the Bible, slavish adherence to the exact instructions issued may well lead us in the wrong direction. Instead we ought to recognize that some, possibly many, parts of our scriptures contain more fundamental but less specific truths, and we must identify for ourselves how to best express those truths in our own lives.

I’ll finish with Evans’ quotation of philosopher Peter Rollins:

“By acknowledging that all our readings [of Scripture] are located in a cultural context and have certain prejudices, we understand that engaging with the Bible can never mean that we simply extract meaning from it, but also that we read meaning into it. In being faithful to the text we must move away from the naïve attempt to read it from some neutral, heavenly height and we must attempt to read it as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of God. Here the ideal of scripture reading as a type of scientific objectivity is replaced by an approach that creatively interprets with love.”

  1. In thus reducing the history of both scholasticism and Covenant Theology, I have most certainly done something of a disservice, if not to those ideologies, at the very least to history. I encourage anyone curious about Church history to investigate further for themselves. Further, since my scholarship is a little rusty, I invite correction about any facts I may have mixed up.  ↩

Who Owns the Bible?

Libby Anne, everyone’s favorite former-fundamentalist feminist atheist, comes to the defense of Christians who don’t claim to interpret the Bible “literally”:

Evangelicals and fundamentalists claim over and over and over again that all they are doing is taking the Bible “at face value.” According to evangelicals and fundamentalists, they are the ones who are actually following the Bible and liberal Christians are not. Liberal Christians, they say, have rejected the Bible and simply do and believe whatever they think best. Because evangelicals and fundamentalists trumpet this message so loudly, it can be easy to end up taking them at their word.

I disagree with much Libby Anne has to say in her post, particularly her classification of people like me as “liberal” Christians, excluding us from the category of evangelicals, with whom I still identify. She totally nails the mentality of some biblical literalists, though—the false sense of holding the hermeneutical high ground because they rationalize away different parts of the Bible than “liberal” Christians do.

What Evangelical Means [And Doesn’t Mean] To Me

I usually identify simply as a Christian, but when pressed, I’m happy to identify as evangelical. I like to tell people that evangelicalism is like my religious mother tongue. I revert to it whenever I’m angry or excited or surrounded by other people who understand what I’m saying.

Todd Akin Doubles Down

Two days ago I linked to this story about Todd Akin saying something wrong back in 2008. Apparently I needn’t have worried that the age of the incident might impact its relevance, because Akin has decided to stand by his remarks:

In defense of his assertion, Akin’s campaign released a statement Tuesday from Abby Johnson, a former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas who quit in 2009 and now speaks against abortion.

“I can attest that when I served as director of Planned Parenthood in Bryan, Texas, we often scared women into getting services they did not need including abortion so we could collect the fees. This included women who were not pregnant and women who were in the process of miscarrying.”

Read for details of how Johnson has been caught in the past lying about this sort of thing. One thing I think Amanda Marcotte gets wrong, though, is her assertion that conservative evangelicals don’t care about the truth:

Part of the problem here is that, within the conservative evangelical circles that are the backbone of the anti-choice movement, “truth” is not the truth, but simply “stories that dramatically illustrate the rightness of our belief system.”

From the outside this probably seems true, but it actually runs counter to the strong Enlightenment mindset of the evangelical movement. Evangelicals love the truth… but they’re also suckers for conspiracy theories, which is why contradicting them with facts rarely works—a conspiracy theorist can always rationalize your “facts” as part of the conspiracy.

It’s a subtle distinction, but the real problem isn’t that evangelicals don’t care about the truth; it’s that we care even more about being “right”.

♀ One Insult and One Compliment


Two days ago Sarah Moon published “Complementarianism’s ugly relationship with rape”, her theory on how complementarian “leaders” (by which I assume she means thought leaders such as theologians or well-known preachers and writers) need rape to exist in order to control women. I recommend reading the post, as well as the rest of Sarah’s thoughtful and frequently provocative writing. I do not, though, agree with her entirely in this case; while I find her thesis interesting and worthy of consideration, the post contains two flawed assumptions that at least partially undermine the validity of her argument. Without wishing to deny the prevalence of rape culture—both inside and outside evangelicalism—I always find it instructive and beneficial to deconstruct flawed thinking.

Firstly, in her very thesis statement (easily identified in bold—hers, not mine), Sarah backhandedly belittles the intelligence of the complementarian laity:

Here’s what I believe and what I am claiming: complementarian leaders, despite their personal feelings about rape, need rape to exist and for it to be a serious threat.

The rest of the post backs up this assertion, but Sarah provides a short summary at the end (again, emphasis hers):

many women adhere to complementarian gender roles because complementarian leaders have told these women that these women will be raped if they step outside these roles.

However thoughtful and valid the logic that occurs between these two statements might be, the idea that people only believe a certain way because they’ve been scared into it is, at the root, a belief that no other intelligent person could honestly interpret the Bible differently than Sarah herself.

Oddly enough, I have experienced this exact sort of condescension in the opposite direction: complementarians who assume that my disagreement with their beliefs must stem from failure to engage the Bible with intellectual honesty. It’s a more specific version of a fairly universal conceit; most people believe that anyone who disagrees with them—particularly about issues they hold dear—must do so because of lack of intelligence, lack of information, or failure to correctly process information due to emotional factors that cloud the opponent’s judgment.[1] In a sense, this conceit is what makes disagreement and debate possible; if I was so open-minded that I believed everyone’s ideology equally valid, I could never hold a real opinion on anything.

When it comes to interpreting the Bible, though, we need to temper our confidence with a fairly liberal dose of humility. A collection of documents with such diverse culture, purpose, and authorship behind it will never have a single, undeniable, agreed-upon interpretation, and claiming—implicitly or explicitly—that interpretations not our own must certainly result from flawed thinking pushes confidence into the realm of arrogance.

Sarah’s assertion that complementarian leaders need rape to control women overlays an unspoken assumption that these women could not possibly engage the Bible with open, unclouded minds and still conclude that complementarianism is true.

Having undeservedly (and, I’m sure, unintentionally) insulted the complementarian laity, Sarah undeservedly compliments their leaders. The second flaw in her premise is more subtle and therefore more easily overlooked but, I believe, no less important to consider: the assumption that people are ideologically consistent. Professional thinkers—and serious amateur thinkers, such as people who write feminist websites—make this mistake very easily, attempting as they do on a full-time basis to maintain intellectual rigor in their thoughts and writing. Most people fail at logical consistency, though—even intellectuals.

Sometimes we acknowledge our inconsistencies but—rightly or wrongly—justify them for emotional or sentimental reasons. For example, I continue to open the car door for my wife and close it behind her whenever we drive together despite knowing that this tradition represents a patriarchal belief in the incompetence and weakness of women. I don’t care; I like those outmoded chivalric gestures. And my wife doesn’t care; her independence and egalitarianism don’t prevent her from realizing that adherence to this little ritual represents my commitment to making her feel valued and adored even after five years of marriage.

Often, though, logical inconsistency goes unnoticed, because people really just aren’t that logical. Trumpet Reason as we might in Western culture, very few develop the habit of genuine intellectual rigor and employ it regularly and flawlessly. Most of us muddle along being completely reasonable only part of the time, and the closer we hold our particular beliefs the more blind we tend to be to their inherent inconsistency.

Sarah contends that while complementarian leaders claim to hate rape, in reality they so narrow the definition of rape through victim-blaming that, in their view, hardly any woman could actually be raped.

According to complementarian evangelicals, “real” (shall we say “legitimate?”) rape can only happen to a limited group of women. Other women who claim to be raped are either lying to avoid owning up to their sin, or they need to take responsibility for “bringing rape upon themselves.”

It may be apparent to Sarah, me, and everyone reading this that telling a rape victim she should have dressed more modestly is victim-blaming, and that engaging in victim-blaming is essentially excusing rape, which amounts to de-classifying it as rape, meaning, by extension, that the victim was not “really raped”; but we’ve thought long and hard about the issue because it’s “our” issue. And because it’s our issue, we can easily forget how to identify with the more muddled thinking that allows a person to condemn rape but also admonish women who dress revealingly, without seeing any disconnect between the two.

Now, to be sure, some complementarians (and others) do simply de-classify rape for any woman who doesn’t follow their every prescription, and I think it fair to say these people use rape to control women and benefit from rape culture. Many complementarians, though, are simply muddled in their thinking—not realizing the mismatch between their real and thorough condemnation of rape and the view of gender they draw from their interpretation of the Bible.[2] To feminists, telling a woman she shouldn’t have been drunk in the first place is equivalent to telling her she wasn’t really raped. To complementarians, it’s just pointing out behavior they would have thought sinful even if no rape had occurred.

So I don’t think I can accept Sarah’s argument that complementarian victim-blaming intentionally de-classifies rape for all but the most perfect women; this projects an internal consistency onto complementarianism that I don’t think exists in actuality.

This, in my opinion, essentially de-fangs Sarah’s case for believing that complementarian leaders need rape to exist, but she has still highlighted an unhealthy attitude toward rape and rape culture among many complementarians. I disagree with her about the centrality of rape culture to the perpetuation of complementarianism, but she is right to draw attention to the issue, and the three writers she mentions in her lede certainly display egregious rape apologism.

I retain a certain nostalgic affection for the type of evangelical churches where complementarianism flourishes, and even though I have changed my opinion on gender to an egalitarian view, I still believe complementarians can point to biblical evidence for their position. I further believe—although this would be controversial in most feminist circles—that accepting biblically-defined gender roles does not preclude a healthy attitude toward rape or female sexual expression, and I hope that complementarians will take seriously the challenges posed to them by Sarah Moon and other feminist writers. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I criticize because I love.

  1. This last is, I imagine, what Sarah would attribute to lay people, especially women, who subscribe to a complementarian view of gender.  ↩

  2. I grew up in several different conservative evangelical churches, and the ones whose teaching on the subject I can recall certainly fell into this category—generally very healthy in their opposition to rape but somewhat unhealthy in their tendency to engage in what I might call “predictive” victim-blaming. I feel sure that if any rape had been reported among those congregations, they would have unequivocally condemned it.  ↩

♀ As Lived, So Written; As Written, So Lived


This post is also part of The Feminist Oddyssey Blog Carnival. If you’re visiting courtesy of the Carnival, welcome!

I credit Fred Astaire with starting me on the path to feminism. When I was growing up, my mom and I would go every week to the library (and later, to three different libraries, one being insufficient for our demanding multimedia requirements), returning home with crates of audiobooks and VHS movies.[1] We rarely failed to consume all of them by their due dates.

Between housework, which my mother probably delegated to me much more judiciously than I remember, and improvements to our neverending string of fixer-upper homes, there was always some kind of mindless work to be done in my family, and we filled the mental space with books on tape.[2] In the alternate universe created by the myopia of memory, my audiobook selections fell neatly into four categories: Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, P.G. Wodehouse, and everything else. Movies were even simpler, with only two categories left after “everything else”: WWII films, and 1930s musicals.

My mother has never once actually sat down and watched a movie all the way through. Nearly every film she has ever seen has been viewed from behind an ironing board, the volume of laundry for a three-person household somehow dictating that the ironing would never actually finish. I can only assume that families in the 80s and 90s who had more than one child hired out their laundry so the homemaker of the family could occasionally eat a hasty meal standing over the sink. In any case, since you can’t keep both eyes on the TV while ironing without burning holes in your clothes, Mom needed movies familiar enough to be intelligible from sound only, and her go-to sub-genre was the RKO Astaire-Rogers musical.

In case you’ve never had the pleasure… um, spoilers? Every single one of these films involves a meet-cute between Astaire and Rogers, followed by some kind of falling out, the singing and dancing of many songs and dances, farcical but witty comedy, and an eventual reconciliation. In other words, romantic comedies.[3]

We homeschooled, which meant that I spent lots of one-on-one time with Mom, who taught me everything except math. (My dad is the math brain of the family.) Most days we stayed home, but frequently we rode a circuit of thrift shops and grocery stores that took all day to complete. (Despite never having a “job” while I lived at home, Mom stayed busy by stretching every dollar we had to within an ace of shredding, and she accomplished this by never buying new clothes if at all possible, obsessively coupon-clipping and price-comparing food, and canning or freezing massive quantities of fruit and vegetables that filled every one of our successive garages and basements. When I tell you that, combined with my father’s supernatural ability to never buy anything at all, Mom’s thriftiness has enabled my parents to pay off three different mortgages over the course of their marriage, you might be able to imagine what I’m talking about and why “homemaker isn’t a real job” will never make sense to me.)

Those shopping trips form my strongest memory of middle school education. I remember sitting in the front seat of our big conversion van, getting a stiff neck from slouching over my books while Mom was inside the Half Price Books store planning the next phase of my education, better than I remember actually studying at home. And as soon as I think about studying in the car, I remember talking in the car, because having your teacher right next to you while you read is the best thing about being homeschooled. My mother’s model for education, especially once I hit the middle-school years, was to assign me a bunch of reading on a topic, then make me discuss it with her until she was satisfied I knew what I was talking about. And because neither of us is very good at staying linear, those discussions branched out in every direction imaginable.

My family was pretty conservative—in case you didn’t get that from the homeschooling and strict diet of black-and-white movies—and we attended an evangelical church in the Anabaptist tradition whose model for the family I have referred to elsewhere as “semi-benevolent” patriarchy.[4] While I was living at home, my mother always stuck to the party line on things like wifely submission in marriage, traditional gender roles, and a woman’s place in the church. As I neared graduation, though, cracks began to show—subtle, self-corrected off-message rants and sentences that started with “I know the Bible says X, but….” Despite being (I think) generally happy in other ways, Mom was no longer satisfied with what the church was telling her about herself, and as accustomed as she’d become to dialoging with me about everything else, she couldn’t keep that conflict contained all the time. I left high school with several seeds of doubt about the Christian teaching on gender taking root in my mind.

I won’t detail the myriad steps that brought me to the place where I believed in egalitarian marriage and equality for women in the church. They happened in my college and post-college years—that glorious time when you re-think everything you believe and come to believe you know everything—and early in my marriage. I don’t even remember most of them, inconsequential as each incremental change seemed in its time. I’m sure working for three years on the staff of my local church contributed in some way, but apart from the realization that evangelicals treat their unmarried like second-class citizens, I don’t know how.

I do know that I fetched up in Indiana, where I went to college, back from a two-year residence in Los Angeles, where my wife did. Some years earlier I’d decided to be a screenwriter and film director, so I spent those two years working in the entertainment production business and writing a series of screenplays that no one wanted to buy. Despite assuming at the outset that I would write supernatural or fantastical thrillers (the genre of movie I most enjoy), nearly every idea I had somehow turned into a romantic comedy, so I decided to embrace my identity and not only write another rom-com but also produce it myself. It starred a high-school girl—with a single mom—who solved a murder using her photography skills.[5]

I’d recently realized that writing strong female characters fascinated me, a fact that took the writing time of eight rom-com scripts to sink in. Since I was about to go into pre-production on the movie, though, I knew it would be a while before I wrote another screenplay. I decided to make the most of that time by teaching myself as much about women’s issues as my old pal Half Price Books would allow. I remember thinking, “I’m going to be the romantic comedy screenwriter who knows all about women’s issues!” Armed with absolutely zero research to guide me, I bought two books: The Chalice and the Blade, by Riane Eisler, and Promiscuities, by Naomi Wolf.[6] I read them both within two weeks.

And suddenly, I was a feminist.

That was almost two years ago. I’m still very early in my feminist education, but I feel like growing up the only child of a homeschooling mom who didn’t recognize the concept of subjects being taboo to children (and also liked Astaire-Rogers musicals) has given me a bit of a boost—as backward as putting “30s musicals”, “homeschooling”, “evangelical church”, and “feminism” together may sound to many feminists. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with a wife, a number of close friends and family, and a church who don’t think those things sound strange at all. Even more fortunately, while many non-religious feminists behave skeptically or contemptuously toward people of faith—particularly those from traditionally partriarchal religions—I know that the God I worship feels nothing but compassion for honest questions and loves to elevate the marginalized, be they slaves, the disabled, Gentiles, or—more recently—women.

  1. People born too late to experience the dubious thrill of the manual-tracking VCR may consider themselves among God’s most fortunate children.  ↩

  2. I’m serious, everyone. I do not miss taped media.  ↩

  3. (With music.) In every movie Fred Astaire (and usually Ginger Rogers) plays a dancer either by profession or hobby, so the musical sequences don’t seem as jarring as in the musicals where people “just break out into song” for no apparent reason.  ↩

  4. Notwithstanding the snark, I retain a great fondness for the church of my middle- and high-school years. Although I wouldn’t fit in there now, I currently attend another church in the same “fellowship” (as they call it), which has a pretty big tent.  ↩

  5. Oh, and also fell in love.  ↩

  6. I’m going to stop you right there, just to save time. Yes, I also eventually bought The Beauty Myth.  ↩

21st-Century Gnosticism

Stephen W. Simpson wraps up his series “The Naked Truth About Saving Sex for Marriage” with one last warning: “The first time probably won’t be very good… but that’s not the point.”

Simpson advocates gradually increasing physical intimacy as marriage approaches. I’m not sure how I feel about that, and everyone is different, but I do like his rationale:

Thinking about physical intimacy in terms of “how far is too far?” puts the matter backwards. Connecting with someone else is not about how far you can go without pissing off God; it’s about what will enhance and build your relationship in a way that pleases God.

The Merger

Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism gives us a short history of the evangelical takeover of the Republican Party (and vice versa):

It was during the Cold War that evangelicalism became welded to the free market, capitalism, and private enterprise… Many Southern evangelicals had supported the New Deal and had even at times been socialists, but… during the 1950s all this changed and evangelicalism and capitalism became forged in a way they never had been before.

Libby Anne’s memories of growing up both evangelical and politically conservative mirror my own to a very slightly more extreme degree:

Of course we were Republicans! What true Christian could be otherwise? The Republican party stood for good Christian values and Biblical policies while the Democrats stood for everything anti-Christian, from socialism to gay marriage to abortion.

Worth considering to anyone concerned more about the Kingdom than about politics.