Kendra Weddle Irons & Melanie Springer Mock
Chalice Press, 2015.
224 pages, paperback.
Reviewed by Jann Aldredge-Clanton
If we ever question the great need for our work as Christian feminists, this book will re-energize and inspire us. In If Eve only Knew, Dr. Kendra Weddle Irons and Dr. Melanie Springer Mock deconstruct evangelical popular culture’s messages that girls and women, as descendants of Eve, are sinful, weak, deceitful, and inferior, and that our hope is through being pure, passive, “pink” princesses who find the right man to marry and to please through serving him and his children. At the same time, Kendra and Melanie construct positive messages with convincing biblical support, empowering us to be all we’re created to be in the divine image.
Countering the belief of many people that we live in a post-sexist world where feminism is no longer needed, Melanie and Kendra demonstrate through vivid examples and compelling stories that patriarchy is still all too prevalent and that indoctrination into gender inequality continues on a wide scale. Their voices ring with authenticity because they witness firsthand the destructive effects of this indoctrination on the college students they teach. All Christians and other justice-loving people should know and care about the distorted biblical messages on gender that come from evangelical popular culture because they remain a pervasive force in our society. Also, I’m delighted to recommend this book because it includes insightful biblical interpretations that free us to become all we’re meant to be in God’s own image.
The book begins by deconstructing the interpretation of Genesis that blames Eve and all women, Eve’s daughters, for all the evil in the world from the very beginning and thus mandates that men, not women, must forever be in charge. We’ve all suffered from this misinterpretation, which still pervades Sunday school curricula, evangelical books and blogs, sermons, and Bible study programs. With a careful exegesis of the biblical narrative, Kendra and Melanie present a brilliant reframing of Eve as a wise woman, the serpent as an agent of transformation, and the garden as a symbol of innocence that must be left behind to experience the complex fullness of life.
Evangelical popular culture has recreated the book of Ruth as a guide for Christian dating and marriage, overlooking complex cultural components in the biblical text and the basic fact that it is anachronistic to consider Boaz and Ruth to be models of “Christian” perfection. Melanie and Kendra show that these romantic interpretations of Ruth misrepresent the biblical narrative that highlights Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi, not Boaz, and that the real message of love in this biblical narrative comes through Ruth’s dedication to Naomi and through laws that allow Ruth, an outsider in Israelite society, to provide sustenance for Naomi and for herself.
Before reading If Eve Only Knew, I hadn’t heard of Proverbs 31 Ministries or of the Live 31 Movement. Both hold up the woman described in Proverbs 31 as the ideal model, in contrast to a “Victoria’s Secret model.” The “Proverbs 31 woman” is big business, with books, clothing, and other products marketed to girls as well as to women, prescribing ways for them to achieve godly perfection, failing to see that the Proverbs 31 woman is, in fact, God.
Kendra and Melanie give the most perceptive interpretation I’ve ever read on the woman in Proverbs 31 as Divine Wisdom, as “God Herself,” who “reaches out her hands to the needy” and who includes everyone at Her table. They then lament the absence of Divine Wisdom and other Divine Feminine language and imagery in faith communities:
Given the centrality of justice proclaimed by Woman Wisdom, it is ironic when faith communities today offer limited tables, lined like Folly with food that will not sustain. One of the most obvious ways this occurs is in the dismissing of the Divine Feminine who is the one true Proverbs 31 woman. In lieu of celebrating Her presence, theologians and interpreters, pastors and parents have diligently worked to replace Her with false claims about who and what women are supposed to be. In the process, they heap untold portions of guilt on women who will inevitably fail in their attempts to be the very Wisdom of God. Not only is this a detriment to women striving to be all they are meant to be, it is a way of reducing the Divine, of limiting rather than expanding how people conceptualize the Holy One who is our Mother and Father, Wisdom and Grace, and a host of other attributes too numerous to mention.
Another one of the many features of this book I appreciate is the truth-telling about ways evangelical popular culture damages males as well as females. The Christian masculinity movement restricts males in narrow boxes of “biblical manhood,” modeled on Jesus as a “man’s man.” Christian children’s books and toys marketed to boys teach them to be brave and strong, to develop “warrior hearts.” Men’s conferences, such as “Act Like Men,” designed to help men be warriors and protectors, are widespread in mainstream evangelicalism. Males who are gifted in ways disparaged as “feminine” suffer from believing themselves less than godly.
Deconstructing the image of a “warrior Jesus,” Kendra and Melanie take a close look at Jesus in the gospels. In Mark’s gospel, the main image of Jesus is of a suffering servant who does not respond to his enemies with violence. Matthew’s gospel features the “Sermon on the Mount,” in which Jesus teaches nonviolent resistance in response to oppression. Luke’s gospel shows Jesus reversing the military might image of Roman leaders by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, and learning the power of compassion from his mother, Mary. In John’s gospel, as well as in the Synoptic gospels, Jesus’ interactions with women, such as the Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene, reveal not a macho man but one who gives equal value to the gifts of women.
Beginning with a poignant story of a teenage girl believing herself to be “spoiled goods” after her church youth leader’s object lesson comparing girls who have had sex before marriage to used Jolly Rancher candy, the chapter on purity culture demonstrates a still-prevalent double standard. Although the purity movement also damages males, the burden falls most heavily on females to keep themselves, as well as males, sexually pure. Christian marketers have cashed in on this movement with purity rings, selling for up to $450, purity clothing, purity books, and other purity products.
Melanie and Kendra make clear that they are not advocating sexual promiscuity, but challenging purity culture that focuses “on a woman’s body as the sum total of her being.” Again, they subvert evangelical popular culture by elucidating Jesus’ subversive words and actions. Jesus challenges the religious purity rules of his day, as seen in his parable of the Good Samaritan, in his choice of “unclean” dining companions, and in his response to the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. Kendra and Melanie connect the purity movement of today with the purity system of Jesus’ day, showing that, as Jesus liberated the bleeding woman from social and religious oppression, “young women today need to be told they can do and be anything; they are not sexual objects for future spouses.”
Another dangerous movement that this book challenges is Christian Patriarchy. Although patriarchy has thrived for centuries in the Christian tradition, this Christian Patriarchy movement, born out of twentieth-century evangelicalism, builds an entire belief system on the absolute authority of men and the subjugation of women. The closely linked “Quiverfull” movement dictates that women fulfill their “God-ordained” role by having as many children as possible; the well-known Duggar family has nineteen. Children in this system also suffer oppression and physical abuse.
Christian Patriarchy’s Stay-at-Home Daughters movement also oppresses women by denying them a college education, keeping them under the rule of their fathers until they become subject to their husbands. Kendra and Melanie give hope for “setting the captives free” through demonstrating that the Bible “releases women from the chains of patriarchy.” They take a close look at the often-ignored story of Tamar, who exercises her own agency in securing justice for herself in a patriarchal world. Also, they examine passages in the Pastoral Epistles used to support male dominance in the light of Scripture passages, more clearly attributed to Paul, in which his words and actions support an egalitarian vision that, in the light of Jesus’ teachings, affirm gender equality.
Melanie and Kendra illustrate the harmful results of silencing women in evangelical churches, parachurch organizations, and educational institutions, and show the rewards of following Jesus’ way of “radical equality.” For centuries, churches have distorted Scripture to keep women from preaching, from teaching groups that include men, and from other leadership positions. This distortion continues on a wide scale among evangelicals, eroding women’s sense of self, undermining female professors in evangelical universities, stifling the full development of girls, shaming women who claim their voices, and perpetuating a culture that hushes victims of sexual abuse. Evangelicals rationalize their “gag order” on women by isolating a few restrictive passages that appear anomalous in Paul’s perspective, and by dismissing his pronouncement in Galatians on gender equality, ignoring his numerous women co-workers reported in Romans and Acts, and overlooking his writings that assume women regularly speak in church.
In addition, the story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s gospel gives powerful support for women to speak out. Certainly not the quiet, submissive woman prized by today’s evangelicals, she shouts out to Jesus, persisting until he grants her request to heal her daughter. In the process, she changes Jesus so that his mission becomes more inclusive. Kendra and Melanie encourage women to emulate the Canaanite woman in finding our voices that will change the evangelical church.
I applaud the chapter on the importance of language and imagery to gender equality, including these statements:
Refusing to embrace feminine images and language for God endorses the sexism embedded within us: that women are inferior to men, that to speak of the “womb of God” is somehow too earthy or messy, that to think of God as Mother produces unsettling images . . . . Until we take seriously the need for our language and images of God to be fully expressed, sexism will exist in our workplaces, educational institutions, and, most prominently, in our churches.
Melanie and Kendra demonstrate that the “God as King” language common among evangelical Christians has given rise to a “daughter as princess” image, informed not so much by the Bible as by popular Disney culture. Every major evangelical publisher has found a lucrative market in princess Bibles, decked out in pink sparkles, and in sword-studded “mighty warrior” Bibles for boys.
Using Hagar as an example of a biblical woman who took initiative in naming the Divine, Kendra and Melanie encourage women to trust our experiences and to name God for ourselves. They explain why inclusive God-language matters, and then give an excellent overview of biblical female names and images of the Divine, such as Wisdom (Hokmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek), Ruah (“Spirit”), El Shaddai (“the God of many breasts”), Mother, and the woman in Jesus’ parable of the lost coin.
Melanie and Kendra show how the Titus 2 woman, like the Proverbs 31 woman, has become a commodity in evangelical culture. They critique Titus 2 books, Bible studies, and websites as setting up hierarchical relationships not only by their dictates on the submission of women but also by establishing divisions between older and younger women.
The gender restrictions in Titus and in 1 Timothy reflect an expanding Christian movement that, after Paul’s death, accommodated to the patriarchal household codes of Greco-Roman society to survive. But some Christian communities continued to follow the way of Jesus and Paul, a way of mutual relationships and gender equality. Here and throughout the book, a careful reading of the Bible provides an antidote to evangelical gender constraints.
The book concludes on the inspiring note of the 2014 Christian Feminism Today Gathering, where “Sophia led us into a full-blown celebration of Her presence through unrestrained singing and dancing.” Woman Wisdom and this “expanding circle of feminist Christians,” invite “us to be all we are meant to be.”
In If Eve Only Knew, Kendra and Melanie do an amazing job of weaving vivid illustrations from contemporary culture with cogent biblical scholarship, all in an engaging, witty style, as in their blog, Ain’t I a Woman. Their book, like their blog and their presentations at Christian Feminism Today Gatherings, makes me laugh at the ludicrous mandates for “biblical womanhood” while feeling profound sadness over all the ways evangelical popular culture harms people with stifling gender prescriptions. Melanie and Kendra also inspire hope that, by overturning these damaging messages with biblical interpretations that nurture gender equality, we contribute to transforming culture. If Eve Only Knew: Freeing Yourself from Biblical Womanhood and Becoming All God Means for You to Be is a must-read for everyone who wants to contribute to changing church and society so that all people have freedom to flourish in the divine image.
© 2015 by Christian Feminism Today