I got the idea to write Femmevangelical: The Modern Girl’s Guide to the Good News after a desperate search during a difficult time for a helpful Christian women’s devotional. Yeah, you remember those books that are meant to inspire and comfort, teach and instill spiritual conviction. But I was unable to find a devotional that spoke to me where I was: on a winding, decade-long spiritual journey and finishing my last semester of seminary, clumsily sounding out a feminist theology drastically different from my fundamentalist evangelical upbringing. In a low place, I wondered if my religious tradition even had the ability to raise my hope anymore, much less empower me.
What would become of my faith? Would I read the Bible and take it seriously? Could I still pray? How would I imagine and relate to this different God I was seeking? Would I be lost?
Turns out I was found.
Femmevangelical reframes the gospel of Jesus dramatically to give feminists a glimpse of the realm of God we can imagine and create. It offers meditations, spiritual practices, theological inquiry, church history, political assessments, feminist theory, explorations of popular culture, brain science, women’s stories, and my own embarrassing tales to help feminists of faith take back our traditions and use them for good in the world. Here’s an excerpt:
I am convinced that the discrimination against women and girls is one of the world’s most serious, all-pervasive and largely ignored violations of basic human rights. – Jimmy Carter
Patriarchal religion is not just a first-world buzz kill, which is why it is so important for women who have more freedoms and opportunities to raise our voices and reclaim our religious traditions to be used for good instead of evil. We can use everything we have discussed here to forge our own personal spiritual paths. But as Carter Heyward says, “We must realize, actively, that we are meant by God, in whose image we are created, to come into our own, and to help others do the same”* [emphasis mine]. For women of faith, this is the point of our being and believing. It is the point of our freedom.
Christian ethicist Beverly Harrison puts it this way: “Activity is the mode of love. Divine revelation comes when a community struggles to lay hold of the gift of life, and together weed out all that threatens to snuff out life.”** Divine revelation comes to us collectively, each woman with her part to play, a piece of the puzzle to contribute. Passive sacrifice of our female potential and authority is not a moral virtue. Harrison points out that “this very modern invitation to us women to perceive ourselves under the images of effete gentility, passivity and weakness blocks our capacity to develop a realistic sense of women’s historical past.”*** We must hold our history and retain our cultural memory, while fighting for justice in the here and now, and keeping our eyes on what is next to overcome. And what is next takes all of us.
Intensely private faith and individual salvation cannot be a woman’s theology. There is too much at stake. Our world needs those who can and will publicly and outwardly bring faith to bear on it. Women historically have been agents of change; but now, more than ever, the future depends upon our collective movement and life-sustaining action. Any suggestion to the contrary about the role of our faith and spiritual practice is a lie meant to control us. Being and doing must never be assumed as polarities at odds with one another in our faith practice. For Harrison, his is what a feminist moral theology is all about—the celebration of the intrinsic relationship of being and doing.
I am reminded of the false comparison of Martha and Mary. In Luke 10, Jesus is welcomed into the home of a woman named Martha, who had a sister named Mary. Martha, being the hostess, is doing the work of making the space comfortable, getting people what they need, keeping people fed. Meanwhile, her sister Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, who is teaching. This was an extremely rare, taboo thing for a woman to be allowed to do. Perhaps there is a little uncertain longing on Martha’s behalf that her sister has cast aside the traditional women’s role and is pushing the boundaries, being a feminist! If only Martha could so confidently cross that line from “women’s work” into the male world of learning, thinking, and participation, too. She was nervous. She was not sure how.
It is all so foreign and disorienting that Martha does not know how to frame her question, so she says to Jesus: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Jesus responds, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” But Jesus is not making a judgment about who is right or wrong, or opining about the choice of busily working vs. spending time with Jesus. Instead, he is doing something much more nuanced and life-changing for Martha, Mary, and other women. He is saying Martha is needlessly concerned in his presence about social norms and gender roles.
Martha is distracted by things outside of her usual scope of reality: her own new hesitation and questioning of her typical female role, and Mary’s bold choice. All the while, Jesus does not give heed to gender boundaries or expectations. Jesus acknowledges that Martha is distracted by sexism—held back by what has been deeply ingrained in her regarding where she can or cannot be, who she can or cannot be, what she can or cannot do. He tells her she can be a follower, a disciple, of his way and help bring his vision into reality. He assures Martha that neither will she be judged for not staying in her “woman’s place” if she too makes the better choice, which is being part of the group, learning, growing, speaking, participating in his mission. He offers women the unprecedented choice of doing the culturally shocking, scandalous, and offensive thing. And he shows he knows what a scary, hard choice it is for her, considering society’s punishments. This story is not a determination of who is “performing Christianity” better: Mary or Martha; it a blatant recognition and calling out of the suppressed situations women find ourselves in, and a call to summon our faith and courage to radically redefine women’s place and our work.
In this spirit, Dorothee Soelle uses Martha’s contemplation and Mary’s participation to create a unified “orthopraxy.” Orthopraxy is a correct action or practice, literally an orthodox praxis. It describes the belief that right action is not just an element of religion, it is the core of our faith. For Soelle, Martha and Mary are together an example of both the reflection and action required for wholeness: “Real contemplation gives rise to just actions: theory and praxis are in an indissoluble connection.”**** Martha had to interrogate the situation, come to understand her new options, and set her mind with intention for the shift she would make before she could act on a new reality. Mary boldly moved to participate in a place where she had not been allowed before. She immediately saw an opportunity and let her convictions set her course. Soelle frames the moral of the story with a question: “How are we to think about the relationship between the work we do in the world around us and what we do within ourselves?” They are dependent upon one another.
You have important work to do within yourself and in the world. Take yourself seriously. Reflect deeply on your life and understand your history. You have help in other women; if you reach out for the Elizabeths, you will find genuine reciprocation. Tell your stories without shame or worry about the false images of perfection women are held to…especially female leaders. Do not let intimidation and harsh reactions stop you. Be your beliefs. Proudly reflect your authentic self in your physical being and actions. Keep your unlived life in view. Keep your diverse sisters around the world forefront in your mind. Taking our rightful place in the world, as women, is crucial. As Hillary Clinton said at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995:
As long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace everywhere in the world, as long as girls and women are valued less, fed less, fed last, overworked, underpaid, not schooled, subjected to violence in and outside their homes—the potential of the human family to create a peaceful, prosperous world will not be realized.
In other words, sight will not be recovered for the blind, the prisoners will not be freed, the oppressed will not be liberated, the jubilee will not be declared, and we will not all take our rightful places in a new realm of God. All the things Jesus said he came to do when he stood up in that small temple and read from the scroll of Isaiah 61 will not be possible without you and your whole presence, your full faithfulness. The gospel will not be fulfilled without you.
*Carter Heyward, Our Passion for Justice: Images of Power, Sexuality, and Liberation (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1984), 4.
**In Judith Plaskow and Carol P. Christ, Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 214.
***Weaving the Visions, 215.
****Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 201.
Rev. Jennifer Crumpton lives in New York City with her husband Dave and her cat Jezebel, and is affiliated with Park Avenue Christian Church. She is originally from Birmingham, AL and writes for Huffington Post and Patheos. Come say hello at Femmevangelical.com or @JenniDCrumpton. Use discount code BLOG35 to get 35% off on Femmevangelical when you order at http://www.chalicepress.com/Femmevangelical-P1512.aspx. Also available in paperback, hard cover, Kindle and Nook at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.