I just want to go way out on a limb, before I say anything, and make the deeply controversial observation that I am an Anglican, or Angelican if you can’t spell. I have always been an Anglican, even when I have floated around in other kinds of ecclesiastical worlds, like the Baptist World. Accepting my Anglicanness is essential for being able to read everything I write today, and if you don’t like it, you may not like anything about this whole post, in which case, as an Anglican, I would just like to say, “I’m so sorry…can I get you a glass of sherry? Tea? Biscuit? Anything?” If you insist on pressing me, I will admit that I am not an “egalitarian,” whatever that even means. “Then what are you?” you shout with your great desire to know things about me. Look, just take the biscuit and leave me alone. The point is that I don’t like the way the conversation has gone and is going. And I am not alone. There’s been a book written about the subject. You know the one—the very shocking Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Biblical Womanhood.
So finally, this summer, along with pulling down part of the ceiling in our kitchen and cooking over an open fire in the woods, I read it. I was nervous, of course, because my husband likes always to announce loudly that he is, as the term goes, “complementarian” as he rushes off to sign every single statement that has ever come out from the CBMW with enthusiasm and delight. While he does that, I sit in a corner reading the internet and cursing the darkness, and we go round for round with each other (he likes to fight, and I am an obedient wife) about the place of women in the church and in the home. In other words, how shall I say it? I myself have lived through skirmishes inside the church (all different kinds of them) and have been able to come into an uneasy alliance with lots of different kinds of people with whom I both agree and disagree on varying points, and being a people pleaser (or woman?…that’s just a joke) I don’t want anyone to be mad at me.
But I read the book anyway, because I’m not only curious but also trying to find my own way. One day I think one thing, and the next day I think something else, and then the third day I try to join them together into some kind of dysfunctional marriage, and on the fourth day, I wonder if I should give up.
No denomination has been exempt from the gender wars, but where everyone lands, I think, depends a lot on where you started in the first place. Like, I began my adult Christian life in a church situation where the men were discouraged from being anything, let alone speaking authoritatively on any point. I committed the unpardonable error in that world of liking men, and wanting them to be who they are, and being interested in their thoughts and feelings. For this, some people were never able to forgive me. By the time we left the Episcopal church, I had grown very weary of how little honor ordinary men received, and how uninterested anyone was in the Bible and what it really had to say.
That was the chief blinding insight I had while reading Aimee’s excellent, provocative book, one which I found exceedingly helpful for outlining the contours of the “debate” or “skirmish” or “war” or whatever you want to call it. She gave me helpful language for describing the deep unease I have been feeling really over my whole adult life about these issues, though she is coming at it from a very different starting point.
So I want to talk about that, but first I want to say that I think you should read the book. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to agree with it. But you should still read the book. And you should read it without having already made up your mind. Sure, you can kind of know where you lie on the “spectrum,” you can be a complementarian or an egalitarian or nothing at all, but you should listen to what Aimee has to say, because, though she has picked up a big stick and prodded it into the tummy of the bear (a big, sometimes scolding, sometimes theologically correct, sometimes funny on twitter, sometimes aggressive bear), yet she is casting a positive vision that we inside the church—whatever kind of church it is—need to consider.
Indeed, consider her very provocation—the use of a necessarily jarring image of a gaslit woman who feels like some person is climbing out of the hideous yellow wallpaper in the room where she has been confined “for her own good.” Aimee pulls this image through the entire book, directly addressing not only the theological claims of the CBMW, but the people themselves. This gives her work a certain immediacy, a flinging of her crisp, dry log of wood into an already roaring fire, a contemporary feel that will make the text perhaps incomprehensible in a few years when, or if, the fire ever does die down. I think if lots of people read her book and talk honestly about her ideas, the fire will roar for a while, and then hopefully return to gently smolder on the hearth, as it should, men and women resuming to their uneasy but kindly common pursuits. If no one does listen to her, however, I think perhaps all the redwoods of the church will burn to nothing, and that will be tragic.
Looking in from what feels like the “outside” of Anglicanism,* for me, Aimee put words to what I think is not only a theological problem inside the church, but a cultural one. We are living with an internal contradiction that can be, if we let it, overcome by honesty and kindness, as well as the Bible. The internal contradiction is this: Women should stay home and be quiet, except when we want them to go out and also when we want them to speak…or blog.
That puts a complicated matter rather too plainly for my tastes, so let me jumble it up. The place of the woman in the home and in the church was obvious in the last century and many people basically liked that it seemed to make sense, nostalgia and all, especially when it was dressed up in pearls and the whole street was peering out of the windows in a benign way, whipping up another pie, and whistling along in some golden June Cleaver/Andy Griffith/Mary Tyler Moore Mashup. It was so pleasant. There were no real consequences for letting June become Mary and go off to the big city because Mary was adorable and good at her job, and didn’t know how to bake a pie anyway. As long as everyone went to church on Sunday it was fine—FINE I TELL YOU—because women are people too, they are. How they are, we do not want to enquire into too deeply. We will focus on the family as the culture rumbles under our feet and Ferris Bueller completely trashes his working mother’s home. Women can have it all! And goodness, boys will be boys! Playboy Bunnies simper and smile while Josh Harris kisses dating goodbye.
Into this mix, the anxiety of people behaving themselves inside the church took over where the gospel lost its life-saving appeal. What you should wear, what you should eat, who you should talk to, what kind of job you should do, how often you should discipline your child, who you should marry (not in that order) was at least as important, if not more so than what everyone in the pew understood to be true about the dual natures of Christ and what salvation is even for anyway. And family after family sent their boys and girls off to college—secular, Christian, it doesn’t really matter—expecting them to return to the pew at the end of four years. Some of them did, but the pews had been exchanged for plush seats and the piano and organ had been swopped for a light show. If and when they came back, they came back with two incomes, because now America was immured in cheap Chinese plastic and a dot.com crash and a housing crisis and various kinds of Jen Hatmaker-Esque Bibles marketed specifically to women.
The expectations of men and women shifted accordingly. I don’t know, personally, any fathers who refuse to send their daughters to college because they want them to know how to keep a home. First of all, what kind of man would those fathers end up finding for those daughters to marry? Only very weird ones who have control issues or someone brought up by the Vision Forum. By trading the gospel for the family, the family itself became the hope of salvation, but one completely inaccessible to most families.
That’s the kind of world I live in. I am college-educated. I met my husband as a result of participating in higher education. The only reason I am a good housekeeper is because I’m Not From Here—I grew up in a place with no electricity or running water, no popping out to the store to pick up a frozen pizza. I was sent away to school, even as a girl, because, though our skirts had to be a certain length and we were taught the place of women in the home, yet we would have to go out into the world and earn cash in order to survive. Nevertheless, we must also remember our place, but also not remember it because otherwise our children will starve and we won’t have children because we would never have met any men—neither kissed, dated, nor courted.
But now the inconsistency of this world is too much too bear. I need a theological view of sex and gender that deals with, as the liberals say, my “lived experience,” which is just another way of saying that I need to stop feeling guilty when I have to earn some money, when my husband picks up a vacuum, when he turns out to be a better cook than I am even though he started dicing onions no less than THREE DECADES later than I did. I need to not worry that teaching my girls Latin and Greek is a waste of time. On the contrary, they will have to face the world, no matter what the home or the church says about it. They do not get to be June. June is gone, and, to some degree, so is Mary, flinging her cute hat up in the air and hammering away on her typewriter.
The clever thing is—the Bible itself didn’t change while my own culture did. The Bible is bigger and broader and wiser than any peculiar custom or habit of any Christian community. I don’t have to turn into June Cleaver to be a good Christian woman. I can read the Bible myself, the way that a Maasai woman, or a Senefou woman, or a Tibetan woman would. I can read the text and then examine myself, my habits of mind, my customs, my community, and go back and forth between the two, having my heart renewed by the living Spirit of God. That is what needs to happen. And yet, though the ground shifted, rather than leaping up to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, so many of us are still arguing about the length of the skirts and how manly, exactly, it is to be able to light a fire.
Which is exactly Aimee’s point. When Paul encountered a chaotic pagan world, he proclaimed the gospel—and its implications—to the men and women of his day. When he went into a Synagogue he did the same. The women were catechized, discipled, brought into the way of truth, just as the men were. They listened to Paul, they obeyed the word of Christ, which began to dwell in them richly. Some customs and habits were chucked out the window, others were recast and reclaimed. And that is what needs to happen now in a new and comprehensive and coherent way so that women can stop losing their minds with frustration, guilt, and sometimes even rage. So that men can enjoy their wives and empower them to live happy and productive lives.
On the mission field, I grew up with many pictures of Christian marriage lived in service to the gospel, both good and bad. For example, if you go abroad to translate the Bible into another language, what should you do, as the man, if you are not very good at language learning, but your wife is? What is your “servant-leader” role? You could, as one man did, be jealous and make your wife cook terrible dinners (she was not a good cook) while you sweated over nouns and verbs, only to leave the field in frustration, the task unfinished. Or you could, as others, send your wife off with her index cards and recorder, in service of the gospel, while you figured out how to get that dead lizard out of the well. Which of these is godly, manful, husbandly leadership? Is the second one “egalitarian” because he is not doing the work himself, but is empowering his wife to do it? I would say not at all. On the contrary. I think the second man has read the Bible and understood what it asked of him.
It’s not rocket surgery. But it is going to be hard, because while we do this, the world will continue to rush down the broad wide road of destruction—mutilating both bodies and language in service of a false and corrupting god of “love.” It is more urgent than ever. Glennon Doyle finds her cheetah self, women perish, and the church rearranges its denim skirts and colors in another flowery Bible.
*Anglicans fight about men and women too, but it isn’t on quite the same set of arguments—though those debates have been and will continue to be painful for many (including me).