Thursday, March 13, 2014

"I was a Girly Girl: Review of Sarah Bessey's Jesus Feminist

At five years old, I was a girly girl. I loved patent leather shoes and ruffled socks. My toys were the domestic sort – I had the cutest little pretend vacuum cleaner, a make-believe, well-stocked grocery store, and a baby doll with cradle and high chair. I was the perfect mother at 5-years-old, cleaning my messy home with a baby on my hip.

Yet, in later years I never felt that domesticity was my sole destination. My mom was my hero and my example. She worked as a teacher. She was also a leader at church and in the community, yet she cooked and decorated with flair. Even with all these responsibilities, she was a wonderful mom and homemaker. She did it all. And, I wanted that too.

I wanted everything: home, work, and Christian service. In that sense, I was (and still am) a feminist. While “doing it all” may be an impossible dream, I refuse to be labeled or limited by those who say I can’t or I shouldn’t. I want to be everything I can be, all that God calls me to be.

In conservative Christian circles, the word “feminist” has always had a bad rap. Attending Bible school in the 80s, I dared to wear a "Woman Will Make the Difference" button in support of Geraldine Ferraro's candidacy and was firmly rebuked for my audacity. People equate the term with Gloria Steinem, working women and abortion rights activism. But, for me, the word was always inspirational. A child of the 70s, I felt the emphasis on equality for women opened my future. It made me think of what I could be and do in ways stretching beyond the home.

Perhaps that is why I was drawn to Sarah Bessey’ book Jesus Feminist with its bright, sunny yellow cover. Was someone reclaiming this term that had become the black sheep of the church? Hallelujah! It’s about time.

From the start, I fell deeply in love with Sarah’s tone. She invites you in, like a friend, to talk and to share stories. I felt encompassed by a circle of women who would let me be me – who would listen to my story – who would not judge. I love that about this book. It creates a much-needed space for conversation in an arena where such conversations are often criticized or held in suspicion.

Sarah walks us through the biblical passages that arouse controversy, and her chapters on their interpretation were not my favorites. Perhaps I’ve heard too many arguments about this subject. I understand how Scripture can be interpreted to support our various agendas. I am nervous and skeptical about those opinions even as I hunger for answers that resonate more clearly with me.

More importantly, I agreed with her push back toward the church, urging that questions be welcomed rather than shunned. She talks about her own history of turning to the church with doubts, and feeling that her inquiries were unwelcome.

“The cracks were ricocheting and multiplying across my heart now, and when I turned to the Church for answers, I did not feel my questions were welcome. This may have been my own pride and willful blindness, but there didn’t seem to be room for me as a questioning woman within the system as a seeker.”

The strength of this book, at least for me, was in the rallying of the troops – the challenge to raise our collective voices loud and clear and to rejoice in our stories as women. Sarah pushes aside and “makes room” for us. I almost sighed with relief that I could wonder along with her and voice the deep niggling concerns of my heart. Yet, she settles on one fact that I agree with wholeheartedly. Jesus loved and respected women. He made room for them. He talked with them. He rejected societal labels and pushed through to see their heart. In that most important sense, Jesus can most certainly be called a feminist.

I grew up in a Baptist church, so I am well familiar with the term “church ladies.” The women in my church were an integral part of shaping my faith – and the church would not have been able to function without them. I adored Sarah’s chapter on “church ladies” and “women’s ministry.” She challenges and expands our antiquated notion of limiting women’s ministry to missionary circles and potluck suppers and transforms it into something glorious:

“So here is what I see when we reclaim the church ladies: a woman loved and free is beautiful. She is laughing with her sisters, and together they are telling their stories, revealing their scars and wounds, the places where they don’t have it figured out. They are nurturers, creating a haven where the young, the broken, the tender-hearted, and the at-risk can flourish.”

Most of all, in Sarah’s book, she echoes the cry of my own heart. She wants us to tell the stories of women, the biblical ones, the historic ones, and the current ones among us. She insists that we need those stories:

“We simply need to tell our stories to our daughters and sons and to our friends, to each other here, and to our communities. The world could hear us rising up and calling them blessed in the city gates; we need to make room for the telling of their stories.”

What is a Jesus feminist? It is a follower of Christ.

Sarah expands that idea clearly: “I am a biblical woman because I live and move and have my being in the daily reality of being a follower of Jesus, living in the reality of being loved, in full trust of my Abba. I am a biblical woman because I follow in the footsteps of all the biblical women who came before me.”
Her commissioning to all women in her conclusion gave me chills:

“I send you out to the spot where you are right now. You are right where you belong, you have everything you need to begin, and we will walk it out together. We are part of the redemptive movement of God in the world for his daughters and his sons.”

Amen and amen.

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