Of all the things that have come as a result of the Church’s gender debates, nothing must excite Christian publishers more than the boom in writing devoted to women finding their place in God’s kingdom. And it’s only beginning. The first generation reared entirely within those debates is coming of age, putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), and telling their stories. This phenomenon became undeniable last October when the controversy surrounding Rachel Held Evan’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood propelled it to the New York Times’ Best Sellers list. And now, almost exactly a year later, Sarah Bessey offers the latest in this growing genre with her first book, Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women.
Bessey is a blogger, conference speaker, mother of three, and self-described “happy-clappy Jesus lover.” She carries her passion and intimate style into Jesus Feminist, often writing directly to her reader (at times even calling her “luv” and “friend”). In this, Bessey aligns herself not only with the ideology of past social activists like Harriet Beecher Stowe but with their literary style as well—one that evokes empathy and demands ownership of the cause at hand.
Sometimes this personal approach borders on the sentimental, but it is consistent with the purpose of Jesus Feminist. While Evans entered an alternative universe, assuming the roles and characteristics of the fabled “biblical woman,” Bessey stays solidly within her own, making Jesus Feminist less an apologetic for feminist theology than a personal account of how feminism might fit with the faith.
A Bonfire on the Shore
Bessey opens Jesus Feminist with an invitation to “lay down our ideas, our neatly organized Bible verses, our carefully crafted arguments” and join her at a “bonfire on the shore.” She expresses her exhaustion with the gender wars and calls us to stop lobbying for a seat at the “Table”—the word she uses to describe the religious establishment—and instead to identify with the outsiders and seek “unity beyond conformity.”
At one point in the publication process, Jesus Feminist had been subtitled “An Invitation to the Kingdom of God Waiting on the Other Side of our Church’s Gender Debates.” While this eventually changed, the emphasis is central to the book. Bessey calls women to participate in the redemptive pulse of the gospel—whether that means fighting human trafficking, supporting educational opportunities for women, or baking a casserole for a shut-in neighbor. In this sense, Bessey’s theology is clearly kingdom-oriented, brimming with themes of progress, justice, and equality. Her rhetoric would be as at home in the abolitionism of the mid-1800s or early 20th-century progressivism as it is in the current post-evangelical landscape.
And yet, Bessey’s passion for ”bringing in the kingdom” does not devolve into naïve optimism. She acknowledges the challenges, roots her vision solidly in Christ’s resurrection, and paints a vivid portrait of God’s “dreams” for the world. In fact, she does such a good job that even the most curmudgeonly among us will find it hard not to ask “Where do I sign up?”
Jesus Feminist is strongest when Bessey uses her own experiences to connect readers to these larger truths. In Chapter 7, she tells her story of motherhood, which is one of miscarriage and loss and of unexpectedly giving birth to her son in a parking garage. Using this distinctly feminine metaphor, she offers a picture of a world groaning to be reborn. She writes,
There is something godly in the waiting, in the mystery, in the fact that we are a part of it—a partner with it but not the authors of it. You know there is a new life coming, and the anticipation is sometimes exciting, other times exhausting and never ending.
In an equally inspiring passage, Bessey calls us to reclaim “the church ladies,” to develop a vision for organized women’s ministry that does not depend on biology alone but adapts and moves with the differing needs, unique gifting, and changing seasons of a woman’s life. As she quips, “If there is one thing that women know about one-size-fits-all, it’s that one-size-fits-all usually doesn’t fit anyone.”
Returning to the Table
Still, Jesus Feminist has its weak moments. And they come when Bessey leaves the bonfire on the shore and returns to fighting for a seat at the Table. Despite the premise of moving beyond the gender wars, by Chapter 4, Bessey is in to all too familiar territory arguing for egalitarian readings of (in)famous New Testament passages.
While you could hardly expect a book entitled Jesus Feminist to do otherwise, these moments fall flat for several reasons. First, Bessey herself does not believe she is called to ordination. But because her writing relies so heavily on her own experience, the fact that she doesn’t also means that she cannot argue for women’s ordination with the same passion that is present in the rest of the book.
But more fundamentally, these passages fail because they are antithetical to the premise of the book itself. Quoting liberally from mainstays like John Stackhouse, Carolyn Custis James, Scot McKnight, and Rachel Held Evans, Bessey reiterates egalitarian talking points about “household codes” and culture and context. In these moments, her writing feels more like a litany of platform positions than the invitation the subtitle suggests.
A Dose of History
And yet, Jesus Feminist is not a book of feminist theology. It is a book that tells the story of how feminist theology is influencing this generation of women. In Bessey’s case, this influence has been mediated by her roots in third wave charismaticism. She describes her childhood as one where:
women prophesied with honor. They led key ministries. They preached. Taught. Read Scripture. Sang. Passed the clean plastic ice cream bucket serving as our official Tithe and Offerings plate… The church ladies cooked and fed and danced with babies at the back of the room, sure, but they were also at the front… To us, it was not about your sex; it was about how God had gifted you.
As Dale Coulter notes, this places her in the direct lineage of the Holiness-Pentecostal tradition that has been including women in all levels of church ministry since the 1800s.
What Bessey and other newly-minted Jesus feminists may not realize is that this is a very different feminism from the religious feminism that emerged in liberal Protestantism in the late 1960s. While both may ascribe to the basic notion that “women are people too,” they are two separate streams of thought which are merging in this generation because of the artificial paradigms of the evangelical gender wars. When second-wave feminism entered the Church, it brought its characteristic focus on women’s roles in the workforce. This naturally centered the religious conversation on women’s ordination–what “jobs” can a woman do in the Church. Conservatives responded by protecting male eldership, leaving those with other conservative doctrines but with looser understandings of gender roles (like some charismatics) caught in the middle. As the gender question has become more and more of a shibboleth, it is forcing those with backgrounds similar to Bessey to ally with those who hold very different views of other doctrines–even doctrines as foundational as the understanding of Scripture. But when two streams merge, the surrounding landscape gets muddy very quickly.
The challenge for Jesus feminists at this point is to gain a grasp of their own history and theology. Without this, they may too easily embrace anything that describes itself as “feminist” and be unable to recognize that not all feminists are feminists for the same reasons. And here, Bessey offers a very questionable piece of advice. In discussing feminism as a concept, she minimizes the differences between conflicting brands, arguing that the line between the sacred and the secular is man-made. She then quotes John Stackhouse saying, “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.”
What is not clear is how we are to recognize what constitutes justice and human flourishing. How do we know what is “good”–or what justice, equality, and progress actually should look like?” Not every feminism—not even every Christian feminism—is as solidly and beautifully centered on Jesus as Bessey’s is. And in the end, feminism that is not predicated on Him will be unable to achieve the kingdom vision that Bessey longs for.
More than anything, though, Jesus Feminist serves as a reminder of how our contexts and experiences influence our view of gender and the Church. Each of our stories, like Bessey’s, is mediated. The views we end up embracing—whether feminist or not—cannot be detached from our broader theological paradigms and denominational assumptions. In this sense, we are heirs of history. And as Bessey so beautifully reminds us in this book, we are in the midst of creating an inheritance for our own sons and daughters as well.
Hannah Anderson is a freelance writer, blogger, and author of the upcoming book, Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God’s Image (Moody, April 2014). She lives with her husband and three children in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. You can connect with her at her blog sometimesalight.com or on Twitter.