A Reluctant Feminist: The Books That Led Me

by Peggy Michael-Rush

fresh apples in sunrise lightI first came across Helen Bruch Pearson’s book, Do What You Have the Power To Do: Studies of Six New Testament Women (Nashville, TN: Upper Room, 1992) while I was a seminary student in 1992. On the weekends, I was helping my husband at his United Methodist church in Ceresco, Nebraska. As part of my ministry there, I was asked to lead a women’s Bible Study. I was in my final year of seminary in Kansas City, and having studied a variety of theological perspectives, I had struggled against feminist theology.

At the same time, as the youngest (and only girl) of four children, and with a very dominating, patriarchal father who was a pastor in the United Methodist Church, I longed for woman-community and woman-influence. Most of my friends and mentors were men. I didn’t understand why my way of thinking, feeling, and processing wasn’t the same as that of men, and therefore I figured it was inferior — that I was inferior.

I had attended a conservative Christian college where my classmates told me that “God doesn’t call women into pastoral ministry” and that my denomination, which did ordain women, was going to hell. On the other hand, I was turned off by some of the feminists I later encountered in seminary; they struck me as being harsh. Though I clung to the Heavenly Father since I was a child, I could not experience love from that demanding, perfectionist and never-to-be-pleased Father God. But he was all I knew.

And so, with eight other women from the Nebraska church, I embarked on Pearson’s study of six nameless New Testament women, many of whose stories I had never heard. As a lifelong lover of the written word, I understood Pearson’s invitation to “the empowerment that can come from hearing and telling the stories.” As a group, we shared our own stories as we wrestled with the stories of these women who had their own version of the gospel of Jesus Christ to share and proclaim. I began to feel like I’d found my long-lost sisters in the pages of the Bible, even though the writers of the Gospels didn’t record their names. And I realized how the influence of women in my own life had not only been discouraged repeatedly, but negated as unimportant compared to the great men whose names were remembered.

Still, it would be more than ten years of struggling through ministry in the church before I would begin to be able to relate to God as more than Heavenly Father. Although I used inclusive language for human beings faithfully, I could not image God as anything but exclusively male, despite the painful implications of the Father image for me personally. And then something wonderful happened.

The Prompting of the Spirit 

It all started with a book about bees. Though my journey into Christian feminism started long before I was aware of it, my own willingness to claim the “f” word as a part of my identity began during the Spring of 2003 when I wasn’t even paying attention. I stumbled upon The Secret Life of Bees (Viking-Penguin, 2002), a novel by Sue Monk Kidd, whose name I recognized from my years of reading Guideposts magazine. My curiosity prompted me to buy the book. I would later realize it was also the Holy Spirit.

As I read the book, I fell in love with the “calendar sisters” of the Pink House in Tiburon, South Carolina. I felt kin to Lily, a lost, motherless child in search of something she couldn’t name. I most especially loved August Boatwright, the matriarch of the Pink House and head beekeeper, who took in the runaway Lily and sheltered her with healing love and community. I longed to dance with the Daughters of Mary as they sang praises, said prayers, ate honeycakes in the name of the Blessed One, and fiercely loved each other. I ached at Kidd’s descriptions of love, life, tragedy, death, redemption and healing, all in the presence of black Mary in the sanctuary of the pink house. I wanted to join their community of faith and kneel before the statue of the Black Madonna with her fist raised forward in the air as she led her people to freedom from bondage and on to new life.

For the first time in my life, I ached and longed for love from the Divine Mother instead of the old familiar Father, who seemed so very different from me and whose love felt distant and cognitive rather than nurturing and life-giving. My quest to know more drove me to the Religion section at Borders Bookstore, not knowing exactly what I was looking for. Kneeling on the floor, running my fingers through the titles, I found a lone copy of a book called The Wisdom of Daughters: Two Decades of the Voice of Christian Feminism, edited by Reta Halteman Finger and Kari Sandhaas (Philadelphia: Innisfree Press, 2001).

Discovering Christian Feminism 

It had been ingrained in me for years that “Christian Feminist” was an oxymoron. Yet, this book seemed like a good place to begin my search, and so I brought it home. It was manna from heaven! And I discovered with some holy astonishment that one of the editors, Reta Halteman Finger, was currently teaching at the same college where, 16 years before, I had been told God doesn’t ordain women!

I emailed Reta with my story, and within a couple of weeks, we met and talked. She loaded me down with piles of old issues of Daughters of Sarah and gave me the website for EEWC. My journey had begun!

A New Challenge 

During the summer of 2003, my husband Larry and I were appointed to be co-pastors of a United Methodist Church in Northeast Pennsylvania whose pastor had abruptly been removed on charges of sexual misconduct. The church was a mess of pain, grief, and anger. That fall, once again I led a group of women through a study of Do What You Have The Power To Do. Pearson’s gentle, compassionate style was exactly what these 17 women from the church needed. They were hungering for something they couldn’t name.

Pearson encourages readers to use their imagination in engaging these six nameless women in their encounters with Jesus; and at the same time, she provides sound exegesis, biblical criticism, theological understanding and re-visioning. The stories come alive so that their stories intersect with our stories. But she also moves the questions beyond our personal realm to the community of the world, and invites us to see the meaning of these herstories in light of situations today. Each chapter is made up of six sections: Anticipation, Exploration, Meditation, Encounter, Interrogative, and Where Two Or Three Are Gathered (a time of closing worship and liturgy).

The Power of Women’s Stories

In our seven sessions together, we talked about reading the Bible from a woman’s perspective, and the women in the study group discovered different lessons learned. They learned that it was OK to push the boundaries of thinking and questioning, and in so doing, to discover new treasures in the Scriptures. We shared stories of pain and grace. We built a community of trust among ourselves as we honored stories in our lives that hadn’t previously been told. We stood up straight with the Bent-Over Woman, we shared Living Water after the example of the Woman at the Well, we confessed our discomfort about Jesus’ response to the Canaanite Woman and celebrated her boldness of faith, we touched the hem of Jesus’ garment with the hemorrhaging woman, experienced new possibilities with the Woman Caught in Adultery, and we resolved to do what we have the power to do and to remember the stories of these women “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world” (Mark 14:9, NRSV), after the example of the Woman Who Anointed Jesus.

For this broken congregation, the study with Pearson’s book was a powerful beginning to a much-needed journey of healing, empowerment, and “hearing into being” of women’s stories, both past and present. Many of the women were hungry for more! It was with delight and relief that I discovered that Pearson had just released another book, Mother Roots: The Female Ancestors of Jesus (Nashville: Upper Room, December, 2002).

The Journey Continues

This past winter, this same group of women journeyed with me to study the herstories of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Again, in Mother Roots, Pearson brought her compassionate and informed skill of weaving the ancient stories with contemporary issues and concerns of both women and men. Using the traditional methodology of midrash, Pearson encouraged us to use our imaginations, to read between the lines of the passages, and to get to know the worlds of these women.

The stories of these somewhat scandalous women came alive for us as we told and re-told their stories of boldness, initiative, and willingness to take risks to push the boundaries in order to accomplish what they did. Subjects such as menstruation, incest, adultery, masturbation, prostitution and male-female sexual dynamics, which are normally somewhat taboo in church discussions, dared us to speak bold truth and see with renewed vision. We questioned them, argued with them, wondered about them, and celebrated their unconventional stories.

Pearson masterfully wove all their stories together with the story of Jesus and considered how these herstories informed and shaped his ministry and vision. The concluding chapter invited us to consider our Mother Roots, both in the Scriptures and in our lives, and to celebrate how these Mothers have shaped and nurtured us. A beautiful epilogue described the best known Mother in the Scriptures, Mary. Pearson lifted Mary up with the other woman saints of Jesus’ heritage and celebrated her prophetic wisdom and boldness of character and faith as she lived out her role in the story of God’s redemption of the world.

“Our Christian roots,” Pearson concludes, “are intertwined with the female ancestors of Jesus and planted deep in the soil of his family tree. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary courageously disturbed the air around them. Heirs to their faithfulness, we are called to do the same when we answer yes. Perhaps not yet fully comprehending what our yes may mean, but in faith that surpasses our knowledge and trusting God with our very lives, may we boldly say with Mary: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.'”

I am a Christian Feminist. Many women in my church are learning that the “f” word is not a four-letter word. Let us all “disturb the air” around us and do what we have the power to do, in the spirit of our sisters past and present; in the Scriptures and in our lives. I give thanks for the gifts of the written word to transform, disturb, and lead us Home. May we all add our verses boldly to the Word and continue the story.

 

 

© 2004 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, EEWC Update,  volume 28  number 1, Spring (April-June) 2004

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