Saturday, January 10, 2009

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?”

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