Super chill book review: The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Beth Allison Barr)

I wandered into an Amazon bookstore a couple months ago and saw Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth featured on the shelves. Which totally makes sense, because Barr’s work has been profiled in the likes of The New Yorker and NPR. But it also kind of surprised me, because the book is quite, well, Christian.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Because the book has gotten so much mainstream—as in, not specifically Christian—attention, I thought it might be more of a secular historian’s take on women in church history and such.

But Barr, at least in my perspective, stands very firmly both within the church world and within the world of a professional historian. I think that’s awesome. And also a little complicated. 

I could see people who haven’t spent much time in conservative evangelical churches reading about “biblical womanhood” and thinking, wait…is this really a thing? Churches are—still—like this? 

Unfortunately, yes, (many) churches are—still—like this. And yes, this hypothetical reader would be absolutely right to be shocked and horrified. 

And then I could see people who have been quite steeped in the conservative church world thinking, wait…is it really okay to reexamine this? Isn’t male authority just what the Bible teaches? It’s what my church teaches… 

Sometimes you spend so much time around otherwise lovely people who operate from a certain mindset that this mindset starts to seem normal. Patriarchy should not be normal.

All this to say, I think Barr wrote a book that’s well-worth reading. 

Barr expresses regret that she stayed silent so long in her patriarchal church, going along with its practices and theology even though she knew these things were wrong. I’m so glad she’s speaking up now.

A few things that stood out in my totally-biased reading:

1. I appreciated Barr’s honesty in articulating the reasons she didn’t speak up more about gender equality in her (now former) church for a really long time.

For example: 

“I kept telling myself that maybe things would change—that I, as a woman who taught and had a career, was setting a positive example. I kept telling myself that complementarianism (the theological view that women are divinely created as helpers and men are divinely created as leaders) wasn’t at its root misogynistic. I kept telling myself that no church was perfect and that the best way to change a system was by working from within it” (p. 5).

“I realized the hard truth about why I had stayed in complementarian churches for so long.

Because I was comfortable.

Because I really thought I could make a difference.

Because I feared my husband would lose his job.

Because I feared disrupting the lives of my children.

Because I loved the life of youth ministry.

Because I loved my friends.

So for the sake of the youth we served; for the sake of the difference my husband made in his job; for the sake of financial security; for the sake of our friends whom we had loved, laughed, and lived life with; and for the sake of our comfort, I chose to stay and to stay silent” (p. 7).

“Complementarianism rewards women who play by the rules. By staying silent, I helped ensure that my husband could remain a leader. By staying silent, I could exercise some influence. By staying silent, I kept the friendship and trust of the women around me. By staying silent, I maintained a comfortable life” (p. 69).

I feel like Barr hits lots of nails square on the head here. Beyond the particulars of her situation (like her husband being the youth pastor), there is so much here that I think a ton of women in evangelical churches can relate to.

There are the things we tell ourselves about the changes we might be able to bring about. (Often, not true—people in power are often less open to change than one might hope for…especially from leaders in a religion that, in theory, emphasizes humility and wonder before a God whom we only know in part. And sometimes, true—but at what cost to the people who stay and fight for these changes?)

There are the fears: job loss, loss of friendships, disruption of family life, the pain (or just inconvenience) our decisions might cause to those we love.

There are the rewards: comfort, trust, influence, leadership, respect, security.

Then there are the loves. Barr and her husband really loved youth ministry. They loved the youth at their church, and they loved a ton of people at their church in general. They loved their friends. Speaking up on controversial topics can jeopardize some of the things that give your life a sense of purpose and joy. That isn’t something to be taken lightly.

I appreciate Barr articulating all these things in a way that (hopefully) holds grace for the person she was and the reasons she had.

And, at the same time, she makes it very clear: “I had good reasons. But I was wrong” (p. 7). And, “By staying silent, I had become part of the problem. Instead of making a difference, I had become complicit in a system that used the name of Jesus to oppress and harm women” (p. 6).

2. It was interesting to learn that it wasn’t so terribly long ago that (at least some) people who now call themselves “complementarians” were openly calling themselves proponents of patriarchy. 

Of course complementarianism is patriarchal. As Barr writes, “Patriarchy by any other name is still patriarchy” (p. 18). But so many complementarians argue so hard that women and men have equal value and worth—and that headship is a nice warm friendly fuzzy concept that’s really all about serving and laying down one’s life, and that sort of thing—that it was helpful to see the connection laid out so clearly. 

Complementarians, as a group—however nice they might be as people, and however well-intentioned, and I know plenty of nice, well-intentioned complementarians—have taken up the mantle of what was formerly known as patriarchy, calling it by a different name in order to sound, well, nicer and more well-intentioned.

3. I liked this quote, which sums up a lot of Barr’s biblical arguments:

“Patriarchy exists in the Bible because the Bible was written in a patriarchal world. Historically speaking, there is nothing surprising about biblical stories and passages riddled with patriarchal attitudes and actions. What is surprising is how many biblical passages and stories undermine, rather than support, patriarchy” (36).

I think it’s helpful to think about the directions early Christianity was moving in—and especially the directions Jesus was moving in—relative to the surrounding culture. If that direction was toward freedom, honor, and equal status for women—and for others, like sexual minorities, people of lower socioeconomic status, and foreigners—then yikes if Christians are doing the exact opposite relative to our surrounding culture today.

4. Since I quoted Barr on the Bible, I feel like it’s worth saying that her strong suit is history. Which is not to say that her stuff on the Bible isn’t good too, but just that history is her academic discipline—you know, like, she has a Ph.D. in history and teaches it at a university level. Which is super badass.

Maybe this is just because I know more about the Bible and women than I know about women in church history, but for me, the biggest value Barr brings to the table is her deep knowledge of women’s history in Christianity. 

The medieval period and the Reformation stood out to me as especially strong points, as well as the “cult of domesticity” from the 1800s. If you’re interested in learning more about women in Christianity in those time periods, this book is totes for you. 

I wish I’d been able to dig more into some of this stuff in seminary. I took a course on Women in Church History & Theology, which was great, but only had some overlap with Barr’s work. I also wish more time was spent on historical women in general church history classes, such that there wasn’t as much need for a separate elective. 

On that note, Barr writes, “the problem wasn’t a lack of women leading in church history. The problem was simply that women’s leadership has been forgotten, because women’s stories throughout history have been covered up, neglected, or retold to recast women as less significant than they really were” (84).

I’m bummed that we aren’t farther along in recovering these stories. But grateful for the work of people like Barr toward that goal.

5. I found it maddening, but also really helpful, to learn a little more about the origins of the ESV (English Standard Version) Bible translation. According to Barr, the ESV was “a direct response to the gender-inclusive language debate. It was born to secure readings of Scripture that preserved male headship. It was born to fight against liberal feminism and secular culture challenging the Word of God” (p. 132).

I kind of figured something like that was the case, but I hadn’t really looked into it directly. Sometimes I feel like I’m being unnecessarily divisive if I try to tell people that the ESV is (intentionally) not very friendly to women, and it might be better to try a more gender-inclusive translation like the NIV or NRSV. 

I never really wanted to be one of those people who had a favorite Bible translation and thought everyone else’s was inferior. That always struck me as something Jesus wouldn’t want to waste time on, when there are people to love, and so many injustices to address. 

And yet. Barr helped clarify for me that the ESV kind of is one of those injustices to address. And it’s probably worth speaking against, even if that’s uncomfortable to do. 

All in all, I think Barr does a great job of showing how the notion of “biblical womanhood” is a load of baloney. I’m here for it. 

Of course, I didn’t really need to be convinced of this. But at another time in my life—when I thought complementarianism was, if not what I personally believed, then at least a legitimate, good-faith, Bible-based way to see things—this book would have been so helpful. And, even though I’m thoroughly in the smash-the-patriarchy-with-the-mighty-nonviolent-fist-of-Jesus camp now, it was still fascinating to learn more of the relevant history from an awesome professor.

Hope you enjoyed this super chill review, and please don’t hesitate to holler with your thoughts!

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