Saturday, January 10, 2009


Out of the Attic: Leveraging Women's Experience of Otherness in the Evangelical Christian Church was completed, submitted & approved in March 2007. In the almost two years since then I've gotten married and I've given birth to a bright and energetic baby boy. So it's taken me & the thesis cat a little while to get our work posted. We're excited to have it up and to be sharing it with you.

The document is laid out here as a blog, such that each section heading titles its own posting. You can read from start to finish or you can pick & choose using the Table of Contents in the right hand margin.

Also like a blog you can post comments to each section. I invite you to leave your reactions, ideas, parts of your story, etc. I'll respond and maybe other readers will too.

Finally, please note that this document is copyrighted under a Creative Commons license. You can learn more about that here or at the very bottom of this page.


In this thesis I apply a holistic systemic approach to explore how the evangelical Christian church can heed women's experience of "otherness" as information about the health of the community. In response, I compose a model of storytelling in small groups to facilitate the integration of women's point of view into the community's story of itself. I focused the inquiry on change that will influence the relationships and information flows among the members of the evangelical Christian community while honoring the truth the community professes. A viable model will enhance the community's ability to engage and embody God and gospel. I performed this work through reflection on reading and personal experience.

1.0 Once Upon A Time (Introduction)

The position assigned to women in the Evangelical Christian church is not always an easy place to be. Many women experience the gender rules and roles as discounting their call to leadership, devaluing their contributions to the community, or requiring that they live in a tension between the authority and expertise they possess in the secular world and the submission they must practice in their worship community. In some cases the tension becomes too great, threatening a woman’s sense of self, her Christian faith, and her relationship to the community of believers. Rather than lose herself and what God has given her, a woman may leave the Evangelical church in search of a faith community that is more welcoming of women’s stories and nurturing of women’s spiritual lives.

The lesser heard stories and insights derived from women’s point of view offer rich contributions to how we understand God, evangelical Christian faith, and the community of believers. When women leave, their unique insight into God and the faith goes with them. Not only is this a loss for the church, it allows the pattern to perpetuate itself on more women. This cycle poses a challenge to uphold Christian truth while resolving the interests of the women affected. How can women’s experience of “otherness” in the evangelical Christian church be leveraged for change in that community? In this paper I am designing a model in response to the question through the application of systems thinking and story.

I came to this question through my own experience as a woman who was raised an Evangelical and experienced the tension and departure noted above. Perhaps I can illustrate this best with a story I composed years ago to make sense for myself of the call of other meanings that I heard as a woman. The story intimates my frustration at that time in my life and it depicts an individual journey. That journey ultimately prepared me to hear a new call, the call to bring these personal meanings into our shared Christian story for the sake of other women and the sake of the whole of the evangelical Christian faith.

1.1 Metaphor of the Madwoman

I call it the story of the Madwoman in the Attic. I borrowed the metaphor from Jane Eyre and feminist expositions that feminine creativity and voice can only be expressed through insanity when struggling against patriarchal repression. Perhaps at its most awesome and unfamiliar God does sound like madness. However, I employed the feminist metaphor to speak for aspects of God that were traditionally left out of the evangelical Christian story. I was especially interested in perceptions of feminine aspects of the divine as well as qualities that did not fit anthropomorphic forms. I imagined God plucked from the wildness and beauty of the cosmos and confined to men’s language. God is, I imagine, a willing captive, desiring relationship with humans, and ever slipping between the cracks of the official story to reveal something more to us. Here is my story of God as the Madwoman:

Once upon a time there was a large house sitting on the top of a hill with long sloping lawns on each side. We all lived in that house and we did not know that there was anyplace else that we could live. On the first floor of the house there is the Big Room. All day and all night everyday that I can remember there is a man standing at the front of the room telling us how we must live in this house. Different men take turns and they each tell us what is right and who is wrong. They tell us what to eat, how to raise our children, why we are cursed. As the men are talking, strange sounds sink through the ceiling into the room. We tremble in our seats. We hear banging, yelps, and other unintelligible mutterings that wrap around the mind and draw it away from the lectures. Rumbling moans and sing song whispers wooing the listener up and away.

The men talk louder. Don’t be afraid of the noises they say. If you obey us, if you stay close, those noises can never reach you. My words will protect you.

The noises capture my attention in a way the man’s voice does not. I slip out of the room and creep carefully across the hallway to a dark corner under the stairs. Other women are gathered there already. They talk quietly. Have you heard the sounds? There was a thump right over my head. I heard wailing the other night. Something dropped from above; I saw them moving it off of the lawn. The women were curious and some were afraid.
“I’m going up there.”
Their faces all turned to me. Tell us what you find. Aren’t you scared? I wish I could go with you. Which way will you go? Don’t go. Let me go with you.
“I’m going alone.”
Come back. Wait. Find us.
I step out of the nervous huddle and walk to the staircase. I want to walk right up it but a man stands like a guard leaning back against the wall at the foot of the stairs. I turn back to where I started and the women are still watching me. One woman points to the back of the house and I leave them in the darkness as I pursue another way.

I move, head down and hunched over, through the kitchen to the laundry room. Here, in dust from the dryer and cloaked in dark shadows outside of a bare bulb’s glow, is a broken staircase that stops at the ceiling. It once led somewhere. It still might. I make the first step. It creaks under the unfamiliar strain of a woman’s weight. Bending over as I make each step, I reach the top warily and push my hands up against the ceiling. Surely it must open. With another glance against being caught, I hit the boards that come loose too easily.

I am still sliding the boards aside when arms twine around mine and I am hauled up onto a floor. The boards are slipped back into place next to my feet. I find myself standing in the center of another circle of women. The noises are louder and clearer here. I hear rattles and roars. A lilting melody sifts in through the walls. Bells tinkle and chime. We are silent in the flickering light of candles and the rush of sounds. I wait to learn who the women are. Will they help me or send me back? Here we are our own, the women tell me. Stay with us and listen to the sounds.
“What makes the noise?”
It is an opera. It is a nightmare. Here we can listen to it and no one rules over us.
“Who put it there?”
We listen to it here.
“You don’t know what it is anymore than they do, do you?”
We are our own here.
“I’m going.”
They turn in together to decide what to do with me. A young woman draws me aside and leads me away from the group while it is still discussing me. An old woman follows us. I am led down a hall, and the noises grow stronger. Slightly above us, in the wall, I see cracks that mark the outline of a door. The younger woman reaches up and tugs it open. Together, both women help me up into the wall and onto another ragged staircase. The young one backs away. The old woman leans in. Tell us what you find, she whispers.
“Thank you.”
They walk away, sided by side, and I want them to come with me. I want to hold hands in a warm circle and be in charge of myself and safe. They are gone. I am alone, on a staircase, hidden in a wall. I pull the door shut behind me and now it is only me in the narrow darkness. There is no light. I press my hands into the wall on either side of me and make each tiny step up in the wall.

The staircase makes a turn and I look behind me to see the tiny cracks of light from around the door. I can always go back, I can always go back. I stand fixed on one step staring at the slivers of light. Repeating the phrase, I can always go back, like a prayer, like it’s all that I want in the world. There are whispers in the walls. My words come back to me, You can always go back, but now it’s a taunt. I turn my back to the light.

The whispers in the wall shatter into laughter. The walls shake with giddy raucous crackling delight. Frowning, I push my hand into the walls and resume the climb. Splinters grind into my palms and fingertips. I swallow hard and make each step. Silence settles on me. I feel like I am being watched but it’s different than how the men in the Big Room watch. I search for an eyeball in the darkness. Can what makes the noise see me? I close my eyes instead. I climb the stairs in darkness, silence, and alone. Fear subsides into exhaustion. I don’t know how long I am walking those stairs.

The singing began sometime during my climb. I hear a woman give voice to words I don’t understand in a tune I haven’t heard before. I open my eyes to find I am standing just a few steps away from a door. Light glows and jumps beneath it. Shadows dance in the tiny space between door and threshold. The light is warm and yellow to gold to orange to white to red to yellow. Flickering and chasing the shadows. Aching and unsure, I lower my body where I am standing and draw my limbs close. In a tight ball I rest against the wall and watch the light.

I am this close. This is enough. I can tell them that there is no where else to go. The stairs end at light. Light and singing. I can return to the other women. I can live on the landing. I can shoo them away. I can remain here forever. With the light and the darkness embracing me forever.

What have you found?
I was sleeping. She’s speaking to me?
“I came this far. I am resting.”
What is up here?
“You are here.”
Who do you say that I am?
“I have seen light and darkness. I have heard music. There is a voice and words.”
So now you know?
“I know something. I know things that they do not know. I know more than what they told me.”
How did I come to be here?
“They put you here. Or maybe you chose to be here? You could be anywhere. You are everywhere.”
I start to think I know less.
What am I? Who am I?
“You are the thing that rattles around us. That frightens us and coaxes us. You are the lullaby, the rage, the jubilee, and the groan.”
Don’t you want to meet me?
Open the door.

The story captured for me a quest I was called to as a woman to meet God and to articulate the God I met in my own life and in my own words. It was only in retrospect that I recognized that the story neglected the other communities residing in the lower levels of the house - the circles of women gathered in secret, the men preaching in the Big Room and the congregants who remained there. The dynamic aspects of the God I called the Madwoman were not for me alone, nor was I the only woman to make this pilgrimage. A more complete understanding of the Madwoman would involve connecting with other people.

1.2 Preview of Model

Today, I can understand that what goes on in the Big Room of my Madwoman story, what we hear in the sermons of men, began as a way to mitigate the distance between human and divine. In women’s lives we find other meanings and messages, still within the story of the Evangelical Christian faith, by which to know Christian truth in human lives. How do we bring the Madwoman out of the attic? How do we carry the magic of the attic – the feminine, mystery, calling, immanent presence, creativity, the paradoxes of mercy and justice, of powerful and powerless, and more – into our congregations, communities, and theology? How do we honor the divine as made known in women’s lives?

One way to approach bringing the Madwoman out of the attic is through women’s experiences of evangelical Christian faith. How can women’s experience of “otherness”* in the Evangelical Christian church be leveraged for change in that community? Through many of the courses during the Whole Systems Design (WSD) Master’s program I have been exploring women’s spirituality and reflecting on my own experience of the evangelical Christian church. I applied to the program with a desire to learn how story can be used for change. At the time, I was particularly interested in the written word, however my studies attended more to the words spoken in a group. This shift strongly shaped my response to the question.

First, it reminded me of the significance of storytelling in a women’s group I participated in as an undergraduate studying at an evangelical Christian college. This influenced the first part of my model – inviting women to form intimate groups where they can share personal stories about their evangelical Christian experience. Groups like this offer a safe and supportive space in which the story of faith can be articulated from a woman’s point of view. Here, women can engage scripture and theology beginning with their own lives. The relationships cultivated in these groups provide companions with whom to navigate the tension between the worlds women occupy and assuage the feeling of otherness.

Second, studying the power of stories told in groups prepared me to employ story differently than I had in the past. The second part of the model is to bring women and church leaders together to share stories. In addition to affirming individual experience and bonding women who share similar perceptions, storytelling bridges people who have different understandings of the same group. As women and church leaders connect personally they can mutually create a new story for the evangelical Christian church. My vision is that through this process women’s insight and understandings of the faith will reach the larger body of believers. In this way the community meets the magic of the attic as it is expressed in many voices. As the community grows to more fully know and understand its whole self it is equipped to more fully engage and embody the gospel.

* “Other” is a word often used to denote individuals and groups identified as not sharing the criteria established as the norm. This boundary setting is a means of recognizing the traits or values that characterize a given entity. (Smith & Berg, 1987, pp. 102-108) It can also be used as an expression of power, consciously or otherwise, to assert the value of one group over the other. This sense of difference is especially acute when the criteria of inclusion are not articulated but instead go unstated as if natural, regular, and the only way that could be. Sometimes the traits that compose the norm can only be identified following an experience where their opposites are normal. For example, worshiping in a spiritual tradition or community that explicitly includes the feminine can help a woman identify the language or behavior that makes masculine the norm and feminine as other.

1.3 Systems Thinking

Donnella Meadows, systems thinker and founder of The Sustainability Institute, provides a concise definition of a system: “A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized around some function or purpose.” (Meadows, 1998, p. 79) In considering women in the evangelical Christian church, the system is composed of the beliefs, practices, and the people that together form the religion. The parts of a system operate in relationships with each other to achieve a goal. Ervin Laszlo, a prominent systems writer and past president of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, describes that function in terms of values. “Values are goals which behavior strives to realize. Any activity which is oriented toward the accomplishment of some end is value-oriented activity.” (Laszlo, 1996, p. 78) The evangelical system is working together to embody the values of God’s truth and the good news of life in Christ.

However, a system is a collection of parts interacting with each other. It is not a single monolithic entity crossing the shortest distance to its goal. The multiple relationships wobble in and out of optimum performance of the system’s values as different parts change and influence the health of the whole. (O’Connor & McDermott, 1997, p. 27) “Feedback occurs when a change in one part of the system produces change in the whole system which ‘feed back’ through the systems and affect the original part again…. Negative feedback works to cancel out, or negate, changes.” (Kauffman, 1980, p. 20) Through a process of change and response, the system will correct itself to restore behavior in pursuit of the values.

Women’s experience of feeling “other” rather than part of the evangelical Christian whole is a manifestation of non-optimum performance. It represents a skewed relationship that undermines the values we are called to in the gospel. In particular, it is a digression from Jesus own engagement with women. This pattern creates a void where the insights and connections with women’s wisdom should be. Margaret Wheatley, a systems writer and consultant, suggests the following:

If a system is in trouble, this indicates that it lacks sufficient access to itself. It might be lacking information, it might have lost clarity about who it is, it might have troubled relationships, it might be ignoring those who have valuable insights. (Wheatley, 1999, p. 145)

I anticipate that by heeding feedback from women’s point of view we might move toward a more full articulation and practice of our sacred text and faith community. Incorporating the story as told by women recognizes a new significance of part of the whole Christian body. It will also support the church’s efforts to engage women with the gospel as women hear their own lives represented in the community’s self expression.

1.4 Story

A story is another way of illustrating systems and understanding feedback. A story is a system of characters, time, and events that together achieve a particular meaning. The meaning of the relationship of these parts derives from the point of view through which the story is told. If a change is made to the point of view, then a different relationship is assigned to the parts and a new meaning emerges. For example, consider the trend in popular novels of reinterpreting familiar stories by adopting another character’s perspective and then observing how that change affects the meaning made of the tale.*

Stories are also the way that social systems, like an institution or a religious tradition, make sense of internal and external relationships and convey meaning. In the evangelical Christian story the authorized point of view is male. The primary characters studied in the Bible are male, God the Father and His Son, as well as the disciples and apostles that followed. Furthermore, it is male theologians and pastors who have the authority to interpret the texts often conveyed in sermons through examples drawn from men’s lives.

But it doesn’t require a wild literary imagination to prompt the exploration of the Christian story from another point of view. Women occupy a particular location evangelical Christian system, assigned through gender roles, and so they make sense of the story from their particular place. Through the lens of story as a system of parts we can examine the story of the evangelical Christian church. We can play with point of view. In this case, articulating the story from women’s point of view conveys a different meaning of the whole.** Heeding women’s story of the whole captures the feedback necessary for the health of the system.

I have indicated that story provides a lens for looking at a system and a mode for capturing feedback. Story also performs another systems function called feedforward. “Feedforward creates self-fulfilling prophecies.” “It is when the anticipated effect in the future, which has not yet happened, triggers the cause in the present, which would otherwise not have happened.” (O’Connor & McDermott, 1997, p. 48) The stories we believe about the future foster confidence or fuel doubts in the present. Change develops in a social system not only by responding to the feedback felt today, but also from behavior based on expectations of the future. For example as we recognize the challenge of leveraging women’s experience of “otherness” to foster change in the church we create the conditions for success by projecting a story that includes women.

The following pages articulate the influences, experiences, and thinking that together constitute my response to the question: How can women’s experience of “otherness” in the evangelical Christian church be leveraged for change in that community? Throughout this inquiry I have built upon my understanding of systems thinking and the multi-faceted power of story.

*For example, consider Wicked (Maguire, 1996) in both its book and stage versions with its wild retelling of the familiar Wizard of Oz story from a dramatically different point of view. With a shift in perspective the significance of events and characters changed dramatically. The Wicked Witch of the West is transformed from an utter villain, whose demise is a relief, into a more complex personality, who stirs in us some compassion.
**I recognize that this lens opens the exploration for other points of view as well. For the purpose of this paper I will be focusing on women. This paper is not about the principle of inclusivity but the particular experiences of women.

1.5 Methodology

“Design is concerned with how things ought to be. The designer devises a course of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” (Banathy, 1996, p. 12) My past experience with the evangelical Christian church impressed upon me the need for the situation to be changed into one where women’s point of view was included in the official story. After completing my WSD coursework I returned to the Madwoman story. Instead of focusing on my individual experience, I acknowledged a larger pattern in the interaction of the parts that render the whole. My challenge was to design a process that would bring the parts into renewed relationship that would more accurately achieve the system’s intention.

I approached the work on my own behalf as a woman who is interested in a way to return to, or at least make peace with, my formative faith community. I considered myself a proxy for other women who have felt a similar sense of otherness in the evangelical Christian community. As I moved deeper into the work I was surprised to realize that my design was ultimately in the best interest of the evangelical Christian church as a whole, including the leadership.

My work draws upon literature from two main areas. I have used writing by Christian women writers to locate my question in a broader context of women’s experiences in and understanding of Christianity. The literature verifies that I am pursuing an inquiry that is significant to others as well as myself. These writings influenced my articulation of the impact that otherness has on women’s faith and the insights women have to contribute to our collective understanding of the faith.

The other body of literature I employed focused on the applications of story for change in groups. The writers work in the diverse fields of education, mediation, anthropology, and Christian ministry. Together, the material prepared me to listen for the story of a group. Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot describes this approach as an “active, engaged position in which one searches for the story, seeks it out, is central in its creation.” (Lightfoot, 1997, p. 12) This material illuminates the relationship between systems thinking and story. It shaped my understanding of methods for using story to bridge differences within a group.

In addition to reading, I used systems thinking as a lens for reflecting on my experiences with two different groups. I identified principles and practices in each group that worked together to foster the connections that carry information in a system. From a women’s group I participated in as an undergraduate I recalled the power of sharing personal stories of our experiences as women in an evangelical Christian community. In my change project for the WSD program, I learned the power of bridging group members with the leadership.

In all of my work the purpose has been to honor Christian truth. I am not questioning the significance of the gospel. I am proposing a means of renewing the connections between the parts of the evangelical Christian body so that it is whole, healthy, and a rich rendering of the community of an infinite and indescribable God. One aspect of this work that has been especially interesting to recognize is that the desire for change, the ideal of equality in Christ, even the use of story are all fueled by the gospel lessons of my formative faith community.

2.0 There is the Big Room: Growing Up an Evangelical

Are you familiar with the Four Spiritual Laws? You would most likely have received them in a tiny booklet, pressed into your hand by a tidy-looking young person (or maybe a feral-seeming older person) as you walked through downtown and not paying attention to the strangers around you. I learned the Four Spiritual Laws as a child and at my most earnest looked forward to (with a little anxiety) the day when it would be my turn for street evangelism in Harvard Square or Downtown Crossing. However, my teen years brought me a bit more doubt and despair than fervor for the LORD; I never did hand out tracts.

The Laws outline, in short statements and line drawings , God’s good will, man’s disobedience and subsequent distance from God, God’s sacrifice of his “only begotten son,” and man’s faith in the son’s death and resurrection as the only means to reunion with God. A prayer at the conclusion prompts the reader in “asking Jesus into your heart.” (Bill Bright, 1965) It’s a simple story of alienation between God and man and the one means to reconciling the two. This tiny little document tells us rather a lot about the community that distributes them.

For starters, they are called “laws” not guides or recommendations or promises or secrets. Evangelical Christianity asserts that there is an objective external reality that was made by God and can be known by humans. The tradition recognizes natural laws, designed by God, and spiritual laws that are equally real. It is a key element of evangelical apologetics that the faith professed is the truth. It is not just a story. It is not one way among many ways. It is a system of cognitive statements describing objective reality. (Pearcey, 2004) Furthermore, “Christianity is the only theoretical system that accounts for the truths we know by pre-theoretical experience. Those truths make sense only within a Christian worldview.” (Pearcey, 2004, p.313)

The evangelical Christian faith is, almost paradoxically, also about the subjective experience of a personal relationship with Christ, via prayer, reading scripture, the revelations of the Holy Spirit, and participation in a faith community. Drawing from these two approaches to knowing God, His laws and a personal relationship with Him, the evangelical believer strives to fulfill a multi-level mandate to resist temptation personally, to save the souls of other individuals and to transform culture, facilitating redemption at the collective level.

This summarizes the evangelical truth but leaves out a lot of the details and emotion that makes the facts significant. The rest of the story is fleshed out through the integration of rules and relationship in daily living. Boundaries and guidelines developed to support the believer’s aspiring to holiness, the means to pleasing a holy God, as well as to protect and embody a life reborn in Christ. It’s supposed to be something more filled with spirit, life, and authenticity, than the liturgy and rituals of the older Christian traditions. Yet it has its own rules that one must uphold and adhere to in order to be within the fold. As a child, I sincerely believed that the rules were a way to honor God. I took it all in earnest and without question, at first.

2.1 Growing up a Girl

My family attended church every Sunday morning and our faith shaped the rest of our week as well. Monday through Friday we met two other families in the church parking lot to carpool to North Shore Christian School. There, Bible study, scripture memorization, and worship services complemented the standard primary school subjects like math and spelling. At home, we practiced our memory verses for both school and church. Each of us, children and parents, were assigned a weeknight to be responsible for giving thanks at dinner, choosing the Bible stories and praise songs for bedtime, and inviting prayer requests from each other before closing the day in family prayer.

As an elementary school aged girl, I sincerely believed that I would meet God in some literal and literary still small voice, burning bush, and writing on the wall kind of way. Then, certainly, God would speak through me. After a Sunday School lesson contrasting the man who prayed loudly in the temple to the one who prayed secretly in a closet* I began keeping a regular quiet time in my closet. It was a tiny service for one. I kept a worn green hymnal there, singing quietly the words illuminated by a flashlight and I began crafting sermons, to no one, for God, in my head.

In the closet services I had a clear knowledge that I was going to be a pastor and my church would be different. God was really going to show up there. Week after week, people would fill the space to be with and know God. Then we would go back to our regular weekday lives, but God would still be with us. In fact, maybe the whole world would get better because we would bring God everywhere. I was excited. I only had to wait until I was grown up and eventually God would visit me and I would fulfill this vision.

Starting in elementary school with Pioneer Girls, the evangelical Christian equivalent of Girl Scouts, and all the way through youth group as a teen, I participated in female only cohorts. We learned the faith from the point of view of Christian women. We were being trained to be Christian women, which was different than being Christian men. Part of that training included learning to translate the word “men” in the Biblical texts, hymns, creeds, and other expressions of our faith as “men and women.” It was a little awkward, but once I understood that everyone knew that girls really were included, it was ok with me. Until I learned that sometimes “men” really did mean just the men. Which meant that because I was a girl I could never be a pastor. This was very confusing.

I didn’t understand; I had a vision. The church in the closet was growing – both my brother and my sister had come to services. But as I paid closer attention to who did what at church on Sundays I saw that it was true. All the pastors were men, even the Minister of Music. Women taught Sunday school and coordinated service projects. There had to be some mistake.

The Bible stories we studied didn’t offer much to support my point of view. We hardly read about girls or women. The ones God actually seemed to like were obedient, patient, and modest. I practiced being quiet and meek. I decided that when I grew up I could marry a pastor or maybe a missionary. I still wanted to meet God but it felt like He was getting further away from me. It wasn’t clear how to reach Him via the paths offered to me in church and school.

The incongruities filtered in gradually, with an increased frequency as I matured. They came in the form of questions, most often prompted by the stories shared by new people in my life or that I read in books and articles for school. As a teenager, my parents and I interpreted a phase of this questioning and confusion as a spiritual crisis. I enrolled in an adults’ Sunday school class called “Foundations” so that I might recall and reconnect with the basic tenets of the faith that had been so vivid and undeniable as a child. Even in the midst of conflicting information, I held fast to a desire to know and be known by God. The struggle was to find my way there.

* Matthew 6: 5-6 "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (New International Version)

2.2 Ringed in Rules

I entered the public school system in middle school and started to perceive and identify, through dramatic contrasts, the rules that moderated my behavior and through which I made sense of the new people and experiences in my life. In high school I joined an after-school club called Students and Teachers Opposing Prejudice (STOP). Our earliest efforts together involved writing letters for Amnesty International. One afternoon it became a little more personal.

Two of the group’s members were planning to attend prom together except they would both be in tuxes. The boy was gay and the girl was a lesbian. Rumors circulated the student population about the two students and the school administration started to get involved. One afternoon, STOP got together to listen to the two teens share what was happening and offer support. But listening to their story, I broke into sobs. Startled and sad, nothing about that afternoon made any sense to me.

According to my religious education, my group members were going to Hell. I felt sick. I couldn’t look at someone and see Hell. Who can do that? I was supposed to do that, wasn’t I? But if you did that to some people wouldn’t you have to do it to everyone? I kind of just wanted to hear more about their plans for prom. But there was all this other stuff to think and to feel.

If God’s message was about bridging the chasm between human and divine, and if the example of Jesus was aligning himself with the outsiders and the shamed, what did that mean for my peers and me? The rules that were supposed to keep me holy and God’s own, were getting in the way between me and other people. If God was right and if Jesus was the example, then the Church, maybe, was wrong. (Could that even happen? It had happened before. But God wouldn’t let that happen. Think about all the stuff God “lets” happen everyday. What else might be wrong? Could there be more for girls? How would I know? What should I do? And believe?) It seemed to me that the rules were also getting in the way between God and His believers.

I started picturing God Himself, His Son and His Good News, trapped within a series of concentric rings. Like a piece of fruit, thick layers of pith and rind protected a vital seed within. I honored the inner core of the religion yet all these outer layers of rules were under scrutiny. To my parents’ delight, I enrolled in an evangelical Christian college near our home. But my investigation persisted. Once on campus, I joined a Bible Study and began training to be a study leader. From that vantage point, I kept watch for people who seemed to hold the heart of the Gospel even at the cost of the rules. My search surprised me in where and to whom it led me.

On that same campus I studied feminism for the first time and learned a language for articulating and understanding my own experience as a woman, especially within evangelicalism. I found another female cohort, but this time we studied our own lives and making meaning out of our common experiences by sharing personal stories. This union of theory and relationships conceived the story of God as the Madwoman in the Attic. A metaphorical object, such as a seed deep within a piece of fruit, failed to express the dynamism and complexity of my experience as an evangelical Christian woman.

The story of the Madwoman in the Attic grew up around me. This new story retained the sense of an essential Holy Truth, at a distance, obstructed and obscured by human communication of it. But the story expanded to incorporate contextual elements like doctrine, gender, and communities of women.

At this point it was a highly individual story of a solitary journey up to a great source. Originally the story served as an expression of my desire and struggle but it slowly solidified into the lens through which I anticipated and made sense of ongoing experiences with evangelical Christianity. It wasn’t until I began to study story and groups that I perceived the significance of groups reviewing and revising the evangelical Christian story to include the magic of the attic and who or what resides there.

3.0 Wooing the Listener Up & Away: Literature About Women & Christianity

Sharing stories in a group followed finding resonance and language on the printed page. My experience of the constraints of gender and the special insights born of that gendered point of view echoed back to me in the writing of other women. Accounts by women about Christian faith affirmed my sense of calling. They confirmed my sense of dissonance. They shared my conviction that there was more to the evangelical Christian story. I felt authorized to own my point of view and express it.

3.1 God's Truth May Not Be Man's Truth

In a literature class my first year of college I read “The Spiritual Autobiography” of Simone Weil, an early-twentieth century French philosopher and labor activist,. I was captivated by her way of thinking through her faith. It was logical, and full of integrity and absolute conviction. Soon after I picked up a book of her letters and essays concerning faith titled Waiting for God. In it, she articulates a vision of the core of Christian faith that eschewed the rules of the Catholicism of her era. Passionate, perhaps to the point of dramatic, about heeding God before all else she wrote the following about refusing baptism until God called her to it, “If it were conceivable that in obeying God one should bring about one’s own damnation while in disobeying him one could be saved, I should still choose the way of obedience.” (Weil, 1951, p. 47) I took it as a confirmation that God’s way is not always the church’s way. Sometimes the fuller expression of faith was the one that defied the conventions of the community.

I clung to another passage as justification of my resistance. It became an expression of my desire, a prayer almost, for a real and vital relationship with truth.
For it seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms. (Weil, 1951, p. 69)

Her words composed a new illustration of my evangelical Christian regard for truth and personal relationship with Christ. Questioning became to me an expression of faith, rather than evidence of its absence.

But it was this last passage that characterized my identity as a Christian and faith in Christ during those searching years:
Social enthusiasms have such power today, they raise people so effectively to the supreme degree of heroism in suffering and death, that I think it is as well that a few sheep should remain outside the fold in order to bear witness that the love of Christ is essentially something different. (Weil, 1951, p. 81)

My life did not come close to the challenges she endured but I indulged myself in an almost ironic sense of camaraderie with Weil as a sheep outside the fold. What did “essentially something different” mean? Here was a woman who had met the Madwoman and was keeping her secrets. Her writing assured me that there is a divine call that does not abide the sentiments and limitations of man-made institutions.

Sara Maitland is a contemporary Catholic, a British writer, who shares a deep faith that is not restrained by the conventions of her religious community. In A Big Enough God she reminds the reader that God is revealed in the creation and so the sciences are not something to fear. She fills page after page delighting in obscure mathematical formulas and startling discoveries in quantum physics. Chaos and complexity are also God’s. Fully aware of the challenge that poses she pushes the point:
Whenever anyone tells you that God is ‘endangered’ or put at risk by something they are always really talking about their own power-base. A God so frail that she has to be protected from the thoughts that minds created by her come up with is not worth the bother, and I think we all know that. (Maitland, 1995, p.100)

She states her faith and her critique in direct tones, a fearless and playful invitation to join her exploration. I reveled in her articulation of a big God who can always be rediscovered, way out beyond human logic, imagination, and possession. The book released my own frustration and fueled my hope for a God who broke through rules that could never be rendered in God-size.

Without making gender the book’s primary issue, Maitland identifies herself as a feminist and recognizes the influence of gender in theology. She consistently uses female pronouns for God catching the reader’s awareness that God is not female, nor is God male, and furthermore God is utterly other than human. But gendered language for God is not just about approximating an accurate sense of an awesome God. It is also about power.

Church leaders chose to call God Father. Maitland notes that churchwomen have called on that Heavenly Father as a source of strength and wisdom as they defied church fathers and other men. The word “Father” depicts God as male and not female. This designation eliminates any special knowledge that women could share with God by virtue of sameness. It reserves that special identification for men. From that connection men derive a special power over others they deem as not like God. As long as gender is locked to power this struggle of identification, relationship, and otherness will persist. (Maitland, 1995, pp 18-24) Perhaps mitigating that dynamic, Maitland acknowledges the work by feminists in assembling new language for talking about God. She found value in it, even when clumsy or failed, because it offers a way to know newly the meaning of the words we use by rote. It questions why these words are significant. What more or other ways are there than what we know?

In the same vein, Maitland locates art, creativity, and new stories within “God’s Grand Narrative” rather than in opposition to it. A big God requires a big story! Similar to scientific discoveries, she deems that these new creations by humans pose no threat to the ultimate creator God. Again, she makes the connection between God and the community of believers. She describes stories as a medium for change by pointing to Jesus own use of them.
Any movement for social change requires a revolution of the imagination; and for that, perfect theory is not good enough. There have to be stories told afresh, rhythms created anew, meanings presented to the heart. That is what Jesus’ parables are: they aren’t just mnemonic aids to good behavior; they are new stories which construct things afresh. (Maitland, 1995, p. 143)

3.2 Faith Expressed in Women's Lives

The Magdalene Gospel may be an example of a collection of such stories. Written by Mary Ellen Ashcroft, a professor of English who focuses on women’s stories and the wife of an Episcopalian priest, the book portrays fictional first person accounts of the women of the gospel. Ashcroft includes references to Biblical text and scholarship to compose historical context that illuminates the significance of Jesus’ relationships with these women. More significant to me, she gives visibility and voice to women I didn’t learn about while growing up in the evangelical Christian church, although they were there in the text. As if to reinforce the point, Ashcroft deftly places the reader inside the character’s experience of rejection transformed into visibility through Jesus. But these women are not just acted upon by the mercy and magnanimity of Jesus. They also exercise their own agency. Mary, the mother of Jesus says, “It seemed to me overwhelming that I should have said ‘yes’ to having such a child.” (Ashcroft, 1989, p. 81) Each one said, “yes” to following Jesus and chose the risk to their safety and status.

Through the women’s point of view we see Jesus newly too. In several stories we observe him defying the religious conventions of proximity to women and ritual cleanliness for the sake of healing a woman. In these stories, the gospel message is not a promise of paradise in the hereafter but has immediate implications for individual and social life. The reader can feel that significance of that in the stories of women whose lives were changed even as their spirits were. In one story, after healing a woman on the Sabbath, Jesus defends the act calling her a “daughter of Abraham” who deserved to be freed of her ailment. His words, as much as the action, shock and offend the religious leaders and establish a pattern of Jesus overturning the established meanings to release “essentially something different.” (Weil, 1951, p. 81)

In her poignant retellings Ashcroft too embedded challenges to contemporary conventions. For example, she depicted the healing of the woman who bled as “an act of ritual cleansing, washing from womanhood the fear and degradation with which religions have fouled it for centuries.” (Ashcroft, 1989, p. 21) I don’t know if I believe the interpretations Ashcroft indicates, even with the endnotes she provides referencing her stories. But hearing the gospel in women’s lives calls me into the faith anticipating relevance and connection. It tells me that this story is about me too, generating a sense of continuity and having a place to occupy and from which to grow.

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, by Sue Monk Kidd, a writer of books for Christian women and wife of a Southern Baptist pastor, describes Kidd’s awakening to and grappling with the patriarchy of Christianity in a years long process. Through reflection, study, and new experiences she finds what she calls the Sacred Feminine. (Kidd, 1996) Reading another evangelical Christian woman’s expression of emotions and questions that echoed my own encouraged me in my search for a spirituality that included women’s lives and honored the feminine.

Early in the book Kidd describes a familiar experience. While the deacons are being ordained in church one Sunday her young daughter asks, with excitement, when it will be time for the women. After telling her daughter that they don’t ordain women, only men, the confusion and disappointment on her daughter’s face reminds Kidd of being a little girl and learning that men, and no women, were the leaders of the church. It had felt like being told that women were in some way less than men; less than she’d expected herself to be. In another church service she recognized that all of the language in the service, in hymns and in scripture, was masculine. After years of accepting that it meant her too, Kidd didn’t really feel included anymore.

For me it was only later in my life, after I participated in services where women were expressly included, that I knew what included really meant in a religious community. Observing women sharing leadership and worship roles, and hearing women identified through inclusive language, made me immediately part of the service. It called for my attention like my mother using my full name. As much as I was included in the worship the faith we expressed grew in me.

Kidd identifies a consequence for the years of participating in a woman’s role in a man centered religion, “Steeped in a faith tradition that men had named, shaped, and directed, I had no alliance with what might be called the Sacred Feminine. I had lost my connection to feminine soul.” (Kidd, 1996, p. 20.) She further defines feminine soul as “a woman’s inner repository of the Divine Feminine, her deep source, her natural instinct, guiding wisdom, and power.” Here her writing moved from familiar experiences of awakening to the creative work of composing new understanding. The idea of the “Divine Feminine” gave me more language for identifying and working with my own exploration. It still cooperated with the evangelical Christian assumption that male and female are different. But it added a new element to hold what women have to dwell in, grow from, and offer to their faith community.

It’s difficult to describe the challenges of exploring this new realm of faith and language. It felt like shedding the identity and the circle of rules that say, “I am saved and safe and God’s own.” It tests faith – do I really believe that truth will be there and catch me? And yet, “it alters something inside a woman when she begins to turn also to women, to see women, and therefore herself, as namers of reality… Was it such a wild thought that women might start naming God, sacred reality, and their own lives themselves.” (Kidd, 1996, p. 38) Wild… like a madwoman.

The vivid and personal essays in Inheriting Our Mothers’ Gardens fostered such a vibrant awakening for me that sections of the book, a paragraph or a sentence, grew into fully developed concepts. In these stories women “start naming God, sacred reality, and their own lives themselves.” (Kidd, 1996, p. 38) Returning to the text, I searched for the section about rice as a metaphor for Christ and found it to be a passing mention. Absent from the book entirely is the story that I’ve always remembered about a woman who tore out pages of the Bible that she didn’t agree with. Through the power of my imagination and inaccurate memory, the book continues to challenge and influence me.

The essays prompted questions about where theology comes from and who does it. What does it mean to grow theology in the soil of one’s own experience? What are the implications of theology developed by experiences, worldviews, and cultures so unlike one’s own? Chung Hyun Kyung, in an essay about her mothers’ (birth and adoptive) different experiences at the intersection of Christianity, Confucianism, and traditional Korean religion introduced me to an approach to theology that suggested agency and creativity.
Since women were excluded from the public process of determining the meaning of religion, they were free to carve out a religion of their own, without the constraints of orthodoxy. Their ‘imposed freedom’ allowed them to develop in private a religious organic whole that enabled them to survive and liberated them in the midst of their struggle for full humanity. The heart of their spirituality was the life power that sustains and liberated them. ‘Life-giving power is the final criterion by which the validity of any religion is judged. (Cannon, Isasi-Diaz, Pui-lan, & Russell, 1988, p. 67)

Despite the cultural differences between women in Korea and women in the US, her statement could have been made about evangelical Christian women. Both groups live in intersections of beliefs. Both groups are not included in the authorized story telling. If evangelical Christian women chose “life-giving power” as the criterion, what might be created? Would it be theology?

3.3 The Shape of Women's Space

Women on the Boundaries examines the tension between evangelical Christianity, feminism, and the academy. In it, two evangelical Christian feminist academics, Nicola Hoggard Creegan and Christine D. Pohl, take on the question “where are the good women?” in the evangelical academy. It is an academic inquiry prompted by personal experience and the authors include some reference to the personal challenges they have endured as women living on the boundaries.

Through thoughtful analysis and quotes from responses to a survey they conducted, the book conveys a range of assessments and emotions about evangelical Christian gender roles and the influence on women’s spiritual lives. In the words of one survey respondent, “When, as a young woman, I was seeking the blessing of the church for missionary service, my pastor said, ‘when will you get it through your thick skull that when the church says no, God says no.’” (Creegan & Pohl, 2005, p. 101) In the responses there were common desires for a “richer spirituality,” expressions of feeling like they didn’t fit within evangelicalism anymore, and adopting contemplative Christian disciplines not typically practiced by evangelicals. In these I heard recognition of a God bigger than evangelicalism and an appreciation of more ways to be in relationship with God than were practiced within evangelicalism.

In the tension between feminism and evangelicalism the authors see potential and promise similar to what I see,
We inhabit not just a tense and conflicted space, but one that is theologically rich, full of grace and spiritually demanding. As an increasing number of sociological studies have shown, evangelicalism looks different when seen through the eyes of women, and evangelicalism will change, we believe, as women gain a stronger voice. (Creegan & Pohl, 2005, pp. 175-176)

They identified some of the rigorous challenges women pose to evangelical theology as it is. Expressing a familiar theme, women would include in theology the high regard given for personal experiences that the religion recognizes in conversion and personal morality. They revisit difficult questions initiated by a different experience of faith in life. How do we understand God’s transcendence and immanence? Do we read Genesis 1-3 descriptively or prescriptively? Are women supposed to be treated punitively because of a mistake made in Eden or are physical suffering and imbalanced gender relationships evidence of a fallen world? (Creegan & Pohl, 2005, p. 130) Women advocate other ways of understanding the crucifixion and atonement, for example moving away from a penal substitution into an emphasis on grace and solidarity. The authors present a dramatic angle in Christology, resonant of Ashcroft’s fiction. Reminding us of the full humanity of Jesus, including his gender and how he treated women, they write:
The mystery of power and powerlessness shows god entering into powerlessness to overcome evil. Here women may have the hermeneutical advantage in understanding and embracing Jesus, regardless of his gender difference. Like women, Christ suffered shame; given his social marginality, Jesus rarely experienced any advantage in his maleness. (p. 154)

The advantage that they suggest that women might hold isn’t one about taking power over men. It’s a vantage point offering a different view, a new understanding, by which to meet truth.

However, today that vantage point doesn’t feel like an advantage. Reminding me of Chung Hyun Kyung, they write, “Women, committed to the church, long for safe places for life-giving conversations and for more vibrant communities of faith and discourse that recognize the multiple worlds we inhabit.” (Creegan & Pohl, 2005, p. 124) Later, sounding a lot like Sue Monk Kidd, they continue, “To define the landscapes and ourselves is also to resist, in some measure, the defining of women that has so often been a part of the theological territory.” (Creegan & Pohl, 2005, p. 175) But they don’t let it rest in the safe company of like-minded women. In fact, they cite that as a problematic pattern shared by evangelicals and feminists. It’s countered with a gentle nudge to change. “If indeed we are constituted in community, then the small groups, even on the edges, are valid, but we must always be seeking the universality of the more mixed gathering.” (Creegan & Pohl, 2005, p. 149)

Coffee Break is a unique example of a woman-defined space within a male dominated Christian tradition. In an article by Helen Sterk, chair of the Communications department at Calvin College and a member of a Coffee Break group, the women’s weekly Bible study sounds a lot like a feminist consciousness raising group. The study group invites women to draw upon their life experience to engage with and apply the lessons of scripture. Regarding the interpretation of scripture women “connect their lived experience with the stories of the Bible”(Sterk, 1993, p. 3) and draw on the lives of women in both the New and Old Testaments. This is especially significant since it is the only place in the community where women can do that.
Male voices speak the word of God in the church. Male voices speak the theology as long as women cannot be ordained pastors. Male voices speak the Christian experience and male norms guide the methods of worship within church which does not allow public leadership of women. (Sterk, 1993, p.4)

In a feminine space of shared leadership and collective wisdom the Coffee Break meetings are the place where women define for themselves what the Christian faith means for women.

God Gave us the Right is an ethnographic study by Christel Manning capturing what it means to be female in conservative religious denominations. She interviewed conservative women in an evangelical Christian church, a Catholic church, and an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. I gave the closest attention to her accounts of evangelical women. Her assessment of the protean identities of conservative women called me to compassion, patience, and confession that there is more at work here than I have understood from my own experience and that of my intimate circles.

I struggle to summarize her work in large part because it is an attempt at a fair account of the complexity of gender.
Rather than apply a single preconceived notion of what it means to be a woman (such as wife and mother) or what is appropriate behavior for women (such as serving and submitting to men) most women in this study constructed and reconstructed their identities and the roles they felt women should play as they deemed appropriate for different contexts. (Manning, 1989, p. 96)

The meaning or behavior based on evangelical gender roles varies based on setting – home, church, workplace – and even by individual women. Drawing on the work of psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, Manning posits that religiously conservative women operate protean identities; identities that shift given what is appropriate for a particular context and these cooperating selves are not in conflict with each other. (Manning, 1989, p. 158)

The appearance of protean identities suggests that the gender roles and rules prescribed by the religion are not wholly mandates but function more to indicate group boundaries such that a woman might not submit to all men in her life but she claims male headship as part of what makes her faith community distinct. Gender roles are maintained as part of group and individual identity, even as they are lived out in complex and varied ways.
By arguing that difference is an asset that makes women better political leaders, that homemaking is work, or that mothering should be applied to all spheres of life including work and politics, they [conservative women] are challenging modern industrial society’s separation between home and work and its organization of economic and political institutions according to male needs. (Manning, 1989, p. 102)

Manning’s account of conservative women’s self-description makes an assertion of women’s special qualities such as strength, knowledge, intuition, moral sense, intimacy with daily life and the physical world. How is that point of view incorporated into a story of “otherness?”

4.0 Here We Are Our Own: Experience of a Women's Group

Relationships brought the concepts from my books to life in the voices of new friends. Although the insights of texts were meaningful for me, making meaning with other women in my community possessed a stronger relevance and emotional connection. We became each other’s companions in the challenges and the joyful discoveries. We supported each other as individuals.

I first imagined a women’s group for my college campus while completing a summer program sponsored by the Christian College Consortium called the Women’s Studies May Term at the Oregon Extension. In some ways the May Term itself functioned as a women’s group. It was a small group of ten students, only one of whom was male. We gathered daily to discuss the experiences and challenges distinctly women’s using writings from the fields of psychology, sociology, theology, and even fiction. Sharing personal experience was another vital part of our inquiry process. In our discussions we recognized common challenges for confidence, strength, voice, and Christian faith.

I expected that gathering women for discussion, encouragement and new ideas was needed on my campus. The dynamics of the school were such that despite the prevalence of women, men were still primary – men held most of the leadership positions, decision-making authority, and male students dominated classroom time. Women needed a space in which to recognize their shared experiences and the public value of those experiences.

I returned to campus that Fall with a plan. I had a few names offered to me by the faculty at the May Term. It was a slow beginning. We kept the group kind of quiet, each inviting friend who had a friend who wanted something like this in her life. After a month of meetings we could see who would stay with the group. We gathered once a week. Usually there were six or so of us sitting around my dorm room, eating brown bag suppers.

The topic of conversation was frequently women and God. Men’s descriptions of God and God’s regard for women, as well as our own relationships with men in authority, had all influenced our sense of who God is and what God wants for women. Using personal experiences as our starting point, the conversations delved into some of the tensions inherent to the evangelical Christian faith such as: personal versus pastoral authority, authority of scripture versus personal experience, the precedence of dogma as the one correct story over personal stories, an anthropomorphic God in heaven versus an ineffable embodied within and around us, and gender roles designating masculine public authority versus feminine “servant leaders.” Friendships sparked in moments of connection over shared experiences, observations, or feelings. One advantage of a college campus was that these connections could resume, spontaneously, in the cafeteria or in the hallway between classes, and we were nearby to support each other.

We came to know each other on the basis of our shared womanhood in this very particular Christian context. This included lots of issues. We wanted strong women leaders and mentors. We were interested in the femininity of divinity. In the course of our conversations, anger was transformed into energy once it was valued in the area of our shared experience. We were angry at the people and attitudes that had hushed us, at ourselves for being pacified, and at the church for deceiving us. Our conversations also recognized the influence of societal concerns, such as body image and gendered language that affected women’s lives even in our religious community.

We weren’t trying to fit into the script of the evangelical community we lived in. Instead, our group fostered individuation. It was a space for composing new stories about one’s self and spirituality. Autonomy for one’s own soul became a familiar refrain and with it the encouragement to explore new forms of spirituality – whether it was studying the women of the Bible, digging into Christian history for the women mystics, or investigating forms of liberation theology.

Out of our messy crew of sweaters, brown bag suppers, and books, we built a sanctuary for each other. It didn’t rest there. We worked together to carry our point of view into our campus community, and supported each other in the changes that carried these new stories forward in our individual lives and identities. As successful as these approaches were, we may have also undermined the deeper intention of our work.

4.1 From Private to Public

We wanted to bring our understanding of women’s lives and especially as Christian women into the common sense of our community. If we had found these issues to be relevant in our lives and important to discuss, surely there were other women and men who felt similarly. But more than connecting with like-minded peers, we felt a challenge to bring into public view what had gone unseen and unexpressed. By speaking up from our point of view, we hoped to fill in some of the gaps in the community’s story. The meaning we made of our experiences and observations wasn’t being shared anywhere else in our community life.

We coordinated a week of seminars and named it “Make Room for Paradox,” borrowing a line from Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, “I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.” The director of the Student Life office suggested that we use a more ambiguous title or be absorbed into a series she was running called “What about….” We declined. We believed that owning the event ourselves and expressing ourselves in a clear direct voice would ensure that our message was heard.

This brought us to the attention of a faculty women’s group similar to our group. They offered to help with some of the logistics for our series, such as suggesting presenters. Most importantly, they confirmed that our work together was valid and significant. Our students’ women’s group was an important plotline in a larger story, and where our characters and experiences mattered.

The week’s presentations varied from mainstream women’s issues that weren’t addressed in our community to issues specific to evangelical Christianity. The Visiting Nurses Association presented on a range of women’s health topics. A woman professor shared with us the feminine names for God found in Scripture and suggested ways to use them in prayer and Bible study. Another woman faculty member lectured on the power of language and the development of inclusive language. One of the women faculty members hosted a small group of us in her home to meet with a woman rector to discuss women’s leadership in the church. Due to recent debates on campus about this issue, we met privately to foster a more open and personal discussion. (It’s difficult to say you feel called to lead in the church in a conversation where the validity of such a call is in question.)

The effect of the seminars was mixed. Students attended. The presentations were informative and the discussions thought provoking and respectful. The meaning of gender was at least open for discussion in these particular topics. The women’s group was also out in the open. Individual students started to seek us out to chat one on one over coffee or join us for a group supper. But there wasn’t a radical shift in the campus community’s overarching common sense understanding or assumptions about women in our evangelical Christian community. The language and examples in chapel sermons continued to privilege men and the campus debates about women in ministry persisted. I wonder if maybe we were too direct in our efforts to share with the campus community that which had been forged in intimacy.

4.2 Reflections and Revisioning

In a sense, even with our careful planning, we went along with the prevailing story. Our seminars fed right in to the existing debates, boldly articulating the other side of the argument. In the presentations we lost the personal story and personal relationships that gave our weekly meetings such power in our lives. In our small group that individual approach made the issues we discussed not just viable intellectual topics but a way to make sense of our real experience. We weren’t practicing sound bytes or proof texts or testing arguments. We were just making sense of daily life.

But there is a flaw inherent to the individual focus as well. The process of advocating for individual consciousness and authorizing a woman’s personal story also supports, if not prompts, a woman leaving the evangelical Christian church. I noted earlier that in our small group we supported each other in pursuing spiritual paths outside of the evangelical tradition. It was a search for something nourishing and it was a subtle act of rebellion. Ultimately, each of us left the evangelical Christian church for several years or more.

However, rebellion, rather than balancing authority reinforces it. Leaving the church is an individual’s way of reclaiming personal authority from that larger system. The trouble is that when women leave the evangelical Christian community we bring an underlying assumption with us. One of the elements that characterizes evangelical Christian faith is an emphasis is on the individual, even when that individual worships and is taught as a member of a faith community. Although women abandon the church for the sake of personal and spiritual authority, we are reinforcing the power of the models we are rejecting.

The evangelical Christian story espouses the value of individual souls, such that a believer experiences a personal conversion and relationship with the savior. Individuals can know the divine through prayer and Bible study without a priest serving as an intermediary. However, participation in the community requires that the individual conform to the dominant story. When the dominant story renders individual women “other” they leave the church. This cycle indicates a dynamic of the larger system manifested as a tension between the individual and the community.

As long as a woman remains solitary, and those who challenge the dominant story remain splintered from each other, the official story retains its influence and status. The proof of the hegemony is that we prize, personally, that we are separate, individual, divided, as if it were our own value. We have absorbed and claimed the very thing that prevents us from ever being more than on the margins. If we want women’s point of view to be included in the story of evangelical Christian faith we need to approach our participation in the system with a new point of view as well.

Due to the experience of otherness, women have a unique opportunity to perceive the polarity of individual versus community and conceive a response to it. We are prompted to leave the evangelical community because it does not fully include us in it, although we have much to contribute. We can see that the significance of the individual only goes so far. This suggests recognizing a new significance of the community. What if the community was perceived as a primary means of knowing God? What if the health of the community as a whole was regarded as an expression of Christ’s love to the world? Rather than conformity to one story, perhaps each person learning from the stories of others might become the norm. An understanding of community could emerge that nurtures and values the individual in new ways.

In small groups women can practice a model for the church community, while gaining immediate benefits that make it possible to remain in the church. Making sense of common experiences together provides a view of the pattern in the larger system. Sharing personal stories also offers a support for navigating the challenges. In these small circles women can develop the insights and meaning that they would share with the larger body. They develop confidence in articulating their point of view. By remaining they demonstrate the value of community to their faith. Furthermore, they are still connected to the larger body and that allows for the possibility that their information might feed back and foster change.

The challenge of the polarity between individual and community is also facing me in the story of the Madwoman in the Attic. As it stands, the tale clearly articulates one woman’s journey. I’ve neglected to include the community of women that supported me in articulating the story as well as the larger community that the story speaks about and could speak into. The story is an effective metaphor through which I approach my spirituality. But it offers no clues for being in community or how to be heard within a community. There is no way, in this version of the story, to bring the Madwoman out of the Attic that doesn’t just bind Her in my language and point of view. So the story must become more complex and dynamic again.

Bringing the Madwoman out of the Attic will engage small groups of women like those of us that gathered as undergraduates and the women faculty who did the same. Those circles are vital for the way in which controversial issues are engaged and understood in lived experiences in women’s lives rather than abstract arguments. Here, insights are found newly through another point of view – shared and supported by companions even though outside the authorized account. That personal quality offers a bridge not for an exodus of women from the church but a reunion of the evangelical Christian community and revision of our collective story.

In the years since my undergraduate experience with the women’s group I’ve learned other ways to use story. In groups and organizations story is employed to bridge different parts of an institution so that each component can understand the whole from different points of view. Their stories can be shared and together they construct a mutual more complete meaning that recognizes the varied insights of the different experiences of different members. This offers a hopeful vision of the future of women in the evangelical Christian community.

5.0 Considering the Descent from the Attic: Literature about Story and Change

Midway through my graduate program I attended a student presentation of a change project that convinced me of the power of storytelling to foster change in a social system. In their project, the students had attempted to craft a common story for our academic center by bringing together the stories from two different points of view – that of the faculty and staff with that of the students. Their presentation offered a hint of the complexity and potential that story possessed. Later, I met with the students to discuss their project in more detail and they recommended an assortment of reading materials for my own exploration. The following selections highlight some of the key pieces that fostered my understanding of story as an instrument for change.

5.1 Seeing Systems in Stories

A brief article describing teaching systems thinking to children illuminated the connection between story and systems thinking for me. Once I began to see the stories as systems, I had a better sense of how they worked for change. In “Understanding How Systems Work Through Children’s Stories” Linda Booth Sweeney (then a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education) asserted that, “The ability to think systemically requires a healthy dose of imagination, that is, to imagine possible futures, to think in terms of ‘what ifs,’ and to visualize and sense connections and interdependencies that aren’t obvious.” (Sweeney, 2001, p. 56) She cultivates these qualities in her students by providing questions to help them try on different points of view when considering a story. In this way they recognize a different significance to events and characters in the text. The children play with their impressions of these parts of the story as well as the more abstract elements such as potential consequences and alternative endings. They hypothesize about what would happen next and why and explore the relationships between the different conclusions.

To me, a story is a great illustration of a system. It’s the articulation of the relationships between multidimensional parts, such as characters, events, and emotions. Changing a story is like changing a system. A particular meaning emerges from a particular arrangement of the parts. If we substitute one of those parts for something (or someone) else or alter the relationships among them the meaning of the story will be affected.

But the meaning made of the story doesn’t reside solely in the text. In a sense, we bring a story with us to each new story (or experience, or new person etc) that we encounter.* Our existing story guides us in making sense of the new one. Changes to our internal stories facilitate making different meaning of the stories we encounter. Similarly, if we change the story of what we’ve observed, we are expressing a different significance for it as well. The same process, of using a story to make sense of new information, operates in groups and organizations as these corporate entities make sense of themselves and their relationships.

In my approach to the evangelical Christian story, the internal and external stories operate in a dynamic relationship where each influences the other. The authorized version of the story fosters an internal story about the meaning of the feminine. For some women life experience challenges this internal story. Sharing personal stories with other women verifies that the official story doesn’t fit women’s lives. This recognition prompts the development of new internal stories for women derived from their faith and experience. Talking in small groups also contributes to the development of new personal versions of the external story and supports women’s expression of this other point of view. The sharing of women’s personal stories in a broader audience prompts reflection on both the internal and external stories about the feminine. In my vision, this reflection supports the inclusion of women’s point of view in the external story and revises the internal story seeded in the community.

*In systems thinking these stories are referred to as mental models. “They are the maps we apply to our future explorations, drawn from our experience of what seemed successful on our past journey….Our mental models belong to us, but they do need to change and evolve with new experience, and we may need to refine them when we enter unfamiliar territory.” (O’Connor & McDermott, 1997, p. 63)

5.2 Making Meaningful Connections

A research paper by Peggy Gill, of the Department of Secondary Education and Educational Leadership at the Stephen F. Austin State University of Texas, reinforced the glimmer of understanding sparked by my reading of Sweeney’s piece. “Narrative Inquiry: Designing the Processes, Pathways and Patterns of Change” (Gill, 2001) is her account of using narrative inquiry to understand the meaning of change within a school. She brings our attention to several systems interacting with each other. There is the social system of the organization, the network of human relationships that compose the school, and there is the system of meaning, the stories this social entity believes and projects about itself (such as where it came from, what it does, how successful it is, etc.).

Gill asserts that change has implications for both the whole of the organization and each of the parts. She recommends paying attention to the personal stories of individuals who participate in the school. What conclusions have they reached about the organization? What are the assumptions that fostered those meanings and that continue to shape the person’s expectations and behavior? These conversations create opportunities to craft new frames of reference for making sense of the organization, its burgeoning changes, and a member’s role within it.

Narrative inquiry is a process that Gill proposes for taking on these kinds of changes within a social body. This involves collecting stories from the members of a given social system to identify current assessments of “what’s really going on” and what it all “really means.” From there, change leaders chart a course that draws on the many versions of meaning and interpretations of the organization. As the organization works through its changes, it draws on the many stories to compose a new whole with the integrity of a more comprehensive and complex understanding of itself, its patterns, and the future it wants to be.* In this way, the meaning of change includes the parts and the whole, the change leaders and the dissenters.

John Winslade and Alison Cotter apply a narrative approach to their work in conflict mediation, as mediators at Waikato Mediation Services in Hamilton, New Zealand. Their work impressed me with its ambitious application of story to foster change by bringing opposing parties together to compose a new story for their relationship. (Winslade & Cotter, 1997) This potential for “mutual restorying” is what I am interested in when thinking about women’s story in the evangelical church. Although we are not starting with an explicit and formal conflict resolution process in the church, I think that aspects of the narrative mediation process are relevant and insightful for even an informal approach. The formal narrative mediation process offers suggestions for composing a complex and nuanced understanding of a system by drawing on different points of view, new interpretations, and intentionally choosing the meanings with which to shape the future.

The narrative approach to mediation begins with intentionally destabilizing the conflict story held by each party. Mediators ask questions to help each party perceive other points of view. If we look at this as a system, the connections between the parts are being shaken loose so that new connections can be established and new meanings emerge. The process supports the participants’ reflection on the assumptions that contributed to their conclusions. Later, the parties are brought together to listen to each other’s story. They are prepared to understand meanings different than their own because they have already practiced perceiving other points of view. Then they begin constructing a new story together.** The task here is to choose the way they want to relate to each other and the influence they want the relationship to have in their lives.

I was also impressed by Winslade and Cotter’s approach to difference. They work with participants to develop new understandings of the differences they perceived. The authors explicitly recognize the influence of participants’ contexts in producing a sense of difference between them. They note that, “relations of power are often laid down according to whose experience is privileged and whose excluded in the dominant way of talking.” This sounded to me like it a description of the relationship between masculine and feminine in the evangelical Christian church. They continue,
People differ not only in the real conditions and opportunities of their lives but also in the stories they draw on to make sense of these differences. Thus conflict can be understood as the inevitable result of the articulation of difference. (Winslade and Cotter, 1997, p. 254)

Through the narrative process, conflict is mediated by fostering new understanding of the same facts employing a new, co-created, story as the tool for assigning meaning to differences.

* To recall the discussion of systems thinking from the introduction of this paper, Gill’s narrative inquiry process is a means to connecting the system to more of itself. The stories influence the school’s next process of embodying its intention or the system’s next phase of change and response toward the achievement of its purpose.
** This functions like feedforward, described in the Introduction. The parties put their hope and expectations into a story they compose of their intentions and hopes for the future. Their faith in realizing that story creates the conditions for its success.

5.3 Meaning Drives the Cycle of the Old & New Story

Addressing the level of culture and history, anthropologist Edward Bruner depicts story as a lens through which we make sense of historical people and events for our own time. He writes, “Narratives are not only structures of meaning, but structures of power as well.” (Bruner, 1986, p. 144) The dominant story conveys and supports the dominant point of view, interpretations, and behavior. Other meanings are rendered with less significance, if they are recognized at all. In some cases, they are assigned explicitly negatives meaning, such as insanity or sacrilege. But his research into the changing portrayals of past events indicates the potential of new stories to fill the gaps and exclusions of the old story.

As the old story loses its “explanatory power and credibility” a new story emerges one of two ways. It may be born of a structural shift such that the old story does not apply to the new conditions. In that case, the new world is so revolutionary, so unlike the old, that it requires a new story to make sense of it and guide human behavior. In systems thinking this is called second-order change and is described as “a change to an altogether different state.” (Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974, p. 10) It is an overhaul of the system that originates with changing its intention. If I were proposing that the evangelical Christian church become a goddess-cult that only recognized the contributions of females and reduced males to silent observers, that would be a second-order change.

Bruner describes another mode as contiguous, incremental change that alters the dominant story over time. This is what I am advocating for the evangelical Christian story. In this approach, referred to as first-order change, the system retains its identity and values. Adjustments are made within the system, for example tending to the flow of information among parts. The new story holds continuity with the old story and ultimately is recognized as the same story. This is what I am intending for the development and inclusion of women’s point of view in the evangelical Christian church.

In either case, a new story is not the end of the old story; rather it initiates a cycle of rediscovery and reemergence.
Only after the new narrative becomes dominant is there a reexamination of the past, a rediscovery of old texts, and a recreation of the new heroes of liberation and resistance. The new-story articulates what had been only dimly perceived, authenticates previous feelings, legitimizes new actions, and aligns individual consciousness with a larger social movement. (Bruner, 1986, p. 143)

This suggests that a new evangelical Christian story, for example, one that includes women’s point of view, will not erase the current story. They will continue in a relationship where each informs the significance of the other.

A new narrative frame may answer the oversights and silences of an old story, but the change to accepting that new story is embodied in the understanding and behavior of humans, as individuals and groups. Annette Simmons is a corporate consultant who uses storytelling to help organizations navigate changes. She offers a warning, “Whenever you tell a story that contradicts someone’s core story they will usually get angry. This is a natural defense. Understanding anger is an important part of telling influential stories. People ‘fight for their limitations’ because it is what they know.” (Simmons, 2001, p. 53) I would say that people fight for their boundaries because that is the reality they really see, the truth that a new story challenges. Granting a new story a chance, however incremental, shakes one’s concept of what is significant, what is good or bad, and how to respond to that. It is nearly impossible to perceive the new story as change rather than elimination. Simmons notes an unexpected value to the dissent for the storyteller, “And continue to listen to those who remain unconvinced. You need them to stay in touch with the things you don’t yet know or understand.” (Simmons, 2001, p. 205)

5.4 Preservation and Change

I’ve read one book that explicitly addresses story telling and sharing the Gospel in the evangelical Christian church. Mark Miller writes from an interesting tension between innovation and reverence for that which must be preserved. As a youth pastor in an evangelical church, Miller uses experiential storytelling to introduce young people to the gospel and to disciple them in the life and teachings of Jesus. Using partially scripted events he leads youth through a reenactment of a New Testament story, followed by time for reflection according to different learning and personality styles (options include: quiet journaling, talking in a group, or playing basketball…).

Miller draws the justification for his preaching style from his understanding of the Bible. “When we shed the chains of traditions and assembly-line faith, we open ourselves up to a type of freedom that I see permeating Scripture.” (Miller, 2001, p. 57) Furthermore, he extends his reasoning to include God’s own self, “For an indescribable God to reveal himself, he has to use a variety of symbols. One symbol or method would fall dreadfully short of the glory of his splendor and creativity.” (Miller, 2001, p. 108) His reverence carries echoes of Sara Maitland’s celebration of a big-enough God.

But we cannot overlook the tension he works within. On page 37 he says the following about the power of not only engaging scriptural stories, but also personal ones:
People can argue doctrine and theology. They can even sit with arms crossed listening to someone’s convincing reason why they should believe. But when powerful stories begin to be told, and when a person can identify with another person’s journey, the arms drop, the defensiveness wanes, and a receptive ear is gained. Faith has become personal.

Ten pages later he issues a caveat, “Methods change, but the message does not. We must preserve the integrity of God’s story as all costs.” (Miller, 2001, p. 47) My question endures the same tension between affirming God’s truth and challenging how we express it.

Secular story experts share Miller’s caution. I like the way storyteller Erica Helm Meade puts it best, “A good teller serves a story by bringing forth its fundamental design, the way a good pruner brings out the essential grace of a tree. The secret is in the balance between improving and preserving.” (Meade, 2001, p. 20) This will have special implications going forward with my inquiry. Do women’s stories improve the articulation of the fundamental design of evangelical Christianity? Can they be included in such a way as to preserve the essential message of the faith? I think so, and I think that doing so is vital to honoring these intentions. A story that renders women other is evidence of having pruned too far - crippling the shape and threatening future growth of a tree that would extend its branches to tap against the attic windows, making a joyful noise to the one who resides there.

6.0 Who Do You Say That We Are?: Practicing Story in a Change Project

The literature about working with story is very convincing, but how does it work in life? In my change project I had an opportunity to practice using story to connect the different parts of a small group. I worked with an earth honoring spiritual community made up of mostly women. Similar to the literature noted in the previous section, I’m describing this project to illustrate some of the themes and approaches that I think can be adapted for application in the evangelical Christian church. I do not intend this project to represent a formula into which we enter the Christian story for direct results.

The group I worked with was about two years old and navigating a leadership transition when I became involved. Two of its three founders had left the group for personal reasons, leaving one founder and a new woman who had agreed to lead with her. At the same time they observed a lower participation of group members. So in addition to discerning who and how to lead, the two co-leaders were revisiting questions about the group’s purpose, what it would offer, and for whom.

They convened a core group of select group members, expecting that from this core, individuals would “step up” into leadership positions. I was absorbed into the core group and the co-leadership as part of my change project. Since I’d recently begun studying story, the concepts and methods I was reading about shaped my approach to the group’s challenges. Participating as a full member of the group, becoming part of its current story, provided me with the understanding and credibility to suggest a new story. I considered my role to be working with and within the group to deliver its next iteration.

In one of our earliest meetings, the remaining founder told me the group’s story. Her account emphasized the departures and dwindling participation. It was an expression of loss and confusion. It seemed to me that the story of a group couldn’t come from one person, even if that person is the founder. I started to wonder about other tellings this story might have. How might choosing a different story for the group shape this transition? I started “listening for stories” (Lawrence – Lightfoot & Davis, 1997) in meetings with the co-leaders and during social time with other group members. Beyond capturing discrete personal stories, I tried to destabilize the group’s story, as I’d heard it, in order to start suggesting other ways to understand our life together and then to choose our future.

I approached these goals by asking questions. I wanted to understand what certain behaviors or statements meant and how flexible those meanings were. Where did the ideas and commitments come from? What would happen if you believed and behaved differently? I had the most opportunities to do this with the remaining founder (the default authority of the group). By posing my questions to her I hoped to both prompt and support her in gentle reflection about our group’s story. Hearing her tell the group’s story, I was concerned that the events and characters of the past had become cemented for her, and determined the shape of things to come. I hoped to bring attention to the parts of the story from another point of view or another point in the chronology. I expected that this would render the story of loss a little less secure. Opening up the old version of the events for reinterpretation positioned us for a new story to emerge to make sense of the past, the group’s identity, and its future.

I conducted a more formal process of questions and reflection by interviewing each of the core group members. I synthesized their stories into one collective story of the group. This finished product offered a full-bodied illustration of the other meanings the group’s life held for its members and included suggestions for how to go forward together.

Writing the synthesis document gave me an opportunity to highlight the connections and patterns that I witnessed in the interview responses. I tried to show the different interpretations from different points of view, including the founder’s and my own. Woven together into a whole, it presented a very different story of the group. Rather than decline, this account highlighted the significance and vitality of the group for today’s participants plus their suggestions for its future. This helped to reveal leadership latent in the membership.

I think that the new story conveyed in the synthesis had the most direct impact on the remaining founder. We didn’t have a clear expectation of what the interview project would produce or how we would use the findings. Then the composition I presented to her challenged the story she told. For that matter, it challenged each of our stories, indicating that no one of us could perceive or express all of the group’s significance. But this was true for the founder in a different way. She had been with the group since its earliest inception as an idea. She knew what it had been created for and how it was supposed to do that. A new story, other than hers, what did that mean?

She asked for some time to sit with the story I’d offered to her. She wanted to move through her initial reactions to be able to understand and appreciate what the different responses meant. And then she started to change how she led. For example, members talked about rotating the locations of rituals as well as who performed them in the role of high priestess. So the next two events were hosted in different homes with different women leading them. The changes also supported the founder by shifting some of the work and responsibility off of her to other group members. The response to her changes confirmed, in member’s words and participation, that the group she initiated was still significant, vital, and growing.

The new story ended up serving multiple functions, which is what the literature indicates that story does. The process shifted the authority for defining the group from the remaining founder to the full membership. The story collection process, gave each member an opportunity for her or his version of the truth of the group to be acknowledged. This multiplicity of views shook loose the existing story of loss and provided a new story with which to grow. The documentation of this is not a final word from me about the group. Peppered with questions and multiple points of view it is reminds us to be reflective, flexible, and to call upon our many parts in order to more deeply know the whole we make together.
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