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The 'Making of Biblical Womanhood' was Not Made for This Woman
(Or so it would seem)
I’ve always been a reader. Indeed, I like to think that I’m fairly good at it! But it’s only been in writing my own book that I’ve had to think in a sustained way about what it is to not just read, but to write. In fact, to write for the reader.
And so I’ve found myself paying closer attention to how others do the job. Why have they structured things that way? What purpose were they hoping that chapter might serve in the broader whole? How have they worked hard to carry me on the narratival journey with them? And, importantly, who do they see themselves to be writing for?
All these questions (and more) were running through my mind when I recently opened Beth Allison Barr’s book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood.
Now, before I say anything else, let me give you some context. I’m female. I’m an ordained Anglican deacon. I’ve served in vocational full-time parish ministry. I have both a degree and a doctorate in theology. And I direct a para-church ministry organisation .
Oh, and I’m complementarian. Surprise.
I purchased Barr’s book knowing that it most definitely wasn’t a complementarian tome (the subtitle kinda gives that away, ‘How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth’). But:
I knew it had been making a bit of a splash in the broader discourse and so I was interested to read her argument. After all, it’s important that we all be willing to engage in good faith with those who disagree with us. Iron sharpens iron. We are all always learners. All that jazz, right?
Barr is a historian and my doctoral research largely revolved around historical theology. I was interested to understand and learn from her navigation of the intersection of history, theology and pastoral practice.
My hunch was that even as a complementarian by conviction, I might actually find myself agreeing with any number of aspects of her cultural analysis. I was eager to see if that was indeed going to be the case and to then consider how and why we landed in different theological places despite shared areas of agreement and perhaps even joint concerns.
But now… now I’m struggling to read beyond the introduction.
Why? Well, because in her opening pages Barr has made it abundantly clear that while this book is probably about me, it certainly is not for me.
You see, I knew that complementarian theology—biblical womanhood, was wrong. I knew that it was based on a handful of verses read apart from their historical context and used as a lens to interpret the rest of the Bible. The tail wags the dog, as Ben Witherington once commented—meaning that 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. So much textual and historical evidence counters the complementarian model of biblical womanhood and the theology behind it. Sometimes I am dumbfounded that this is a battle we are still fighting.
OK. So yes, I was a bit irked at Barr’s language of “knowing” that complementarian theology was “wrong”. I mean, I’d probably choose to express myself as “believing” that egalitarian theology is “incorrect”. But, whatever right? I can appreciate a woman who is confident in her own opinion.
But—with my “write for the reader” glasses on—what I wasn’t so readily able to appreciate was the comprehensive, dismissive and, I guess I’ll just say it, pretty obnoxious way she managed to so eagerly jettison both the perspective she “knows is wrong” and those who hold to it… and all this in just the introduction!
Complementarian theology, she contends, is the result of (what I assume is) irresponsible and lazy interpretation, or perhaps less generously, intentional manipulation of just a smattering of carefully selected verses which have been recklessly superimposed over the entire narrative of Scripture.
Those who hold to it clearly have no idea about how to read Scripture as a historical document which has been written within a particular cultural context. After all, naive theologians aren’t historians like Barr (let’s just put aside the inconvenient fact that many of them have extensively studied church history and biblical hermeneutics).
Complementarian theology is just so patently, obviously and pathetically thin that she is just “dumbfounded” that she even has to take the time to write this book. But she’ll valiantly suck it up and get the job done nonetheless.
Barr goes on to designate anyone who hasn’t actively countered complementarian theology in churches (her past self included) as being:
Silent Christians […] who have allowed misogyny and abuse to run rampant in the church. They have allowed teachings to remain intact that oppress women and stand contrary to everything Jesus did and taught’
Read that again.
If you haven’t actively opposed complementarian theology in your church then you are complicit in—indeed, elsewhere she uses the words “guilty” of and “sharing in the blame” for—the promotion of teaching which Stands. Contrary. To. Everything. Jesus. Did. And. Taught.
All those years you spent grappling in good faith with the Bible’s teaching about relationships between men and women? Those good faith conversations you’ve had with egalitarians? That good faith complementarian ministry you’ve fruitfully and wholeheartedly served in? Those books (from all perspectives) you poured over and engaged with in good faith? That wrestling in prayer with God, asking him to help you live according to his intentions for you in good faith?
Turns out none of it was in good faith after all. Barr “knows” this.
And on that note, she draws her introduction towards a close with these words:
This book is for the people in my evangelical world. The women and men I still know and love. It is to you I am speaking. And it is you who I am asking to listen.
Or actually, maybe yeah. Barr’s book is for people in HER evangelical world. The people SHE still knows and loves. But not for everyone else outside that self-determined sphere. Not, it seems, for me.
I’ll still read Barr’s book.
I’ll read it knowing that while I’m seeking to engage with and better understand her position, she’s already dismissed mine as “dumbfounding”. I’ll read it anticipating points of happy agreement, even as she has pronounced my good faith theological conviction to stand contrary to everything Jesus did and taught.
Though The Making of Biblical Womanhood wasn’t made for this woman, she’ll still read it. Because she wishes that it had been.
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