I keep being astonished at how quickly the recent past becomes ancient history, and how that impels the reinvention of the same wheels, over and over, generation after generation. I’m a slower learner than I think, I guess.
Because feminism is old. Anne Hutchinson old. Married Women’s Property Acts old. Votes for Women old. International Ladies Garment Workers Union – Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire old. Rosie the Riveter old. Ordination of women old. 1970s consciousness raising / shelter movement / book co-op / women’s studies old.
And yet feminism is apparently éternellement jeune, and a perpetual enfant terrible, to boot. It is, demonstrably, still possible for that old thing to generate all kinds of 15 minutes of fame in the blogosphere, as attested by the reception of Eliza Griswold’s New Yorker article on “The Unmaking of Biblical Womanhood” this past summer. Griswold profiled Beth Allison Barr’s recent book The Making of Biblical Womanhood, along with a nod to Kristin Kobes du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, in the context of a look at the ongoing egalitarian – complementarian argument in the evangelical neighborhood of American Christianity. The ongoing-ness of which just makes the same point in a different way.
By far the most annoying feature of Griswold’s article seems to have been that she outed Christian women for wearing sundresses. But tacitly siding with Beth Allison Barr annoyed some people, too.
Because of that, I expected to encounter shocking new content in The Making of Biblical Womanhood. I had forgotten about the iron law of reinventing the wheel. Barr’s book is like a memorandum: we’ve already done this, you-all. More than once. Reading it is like going back in the Session minutes to find out when was the last time we voted on this exact same thing.
Greco-Roman culture was patriarchal. Women did ministry in the early church. Yes, it’s in the Bible. Translation matters. Interpretation matters, and often follows rather than leads theological agendas and precommitments. The Reformation stopped women being nuns. The Victorians invented the cult of domesticity. There’s a downside to preaching that women have to obey their men no matter what and that ever questioning authority is a sin. Imagine that.
Apparently, this is new news to a whole generation. For that generation, Barr’s book is part wake-up call, part permission slip. Women can know stuff, and what they know can be so factually accurate and spiritually authoritative that people – all kinds of people – best be listening to it. Imagine that. Plus, women can do stuff. God calls them to do that stuff, too. Who knew. Women are people. So radical.
If you didn’t already know that, of course, it could sound radical. Personally radical. Barr’s book is remarkably personal, ultimately more personal than academic. Her personal experience as an evangelical Christian woman, and wife, and mother, who happens to be an academic historian, informs her writing and organizes her presentation. That personal experience, that testimony, probably commends the book to a particular audience. An audience that has been sensing the absence of something in their lives. And now that they have this wheel, can see how perfectly it would solve that problem.
So, I am happy for those readers, and grateful to Beth Allison Barr and her scholarship on their behalf. Sometimes, reinvention is exactly the work that needs doing.
I must say, though, that Barr’s reading of 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 as a dialogue with Greco-Roman conventional wisdom was new to me (59-62), and interesting. I also learned more about the contemporary revival of the Arian heresy, in the form of the doctrine of “the eternal subordination of the Son,” than I already knew (191-197). Learning that made me glad that I usually get to hang out on the other side of the playground from those guys.
Notes on: Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. BrazosPress, 2021. [An installment of the Read Me Project.]