Category: Women’s issues

Finding God in the book of Ruth (spoiler alert: it isn’t Boaz)

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For the past few weeks, our small group have been doing a Bible study on the book of Ruth. The gist of the entire study revolves around Boaz as Naomi and Ruth’s “guardian-redeemer” (NIV). As their guardian-redeemer, Boaz was expected to look after his clan members Naomi and Ruth and to “redeem” them from their situation if in a position to do so. This principle is used to illustrate Jesus Christ’s role as our guardian-redeemer, and it’s not hard to see why the authors of the study would make this point. It’s at least partly true.

But Boaz as Jesus? This niggled me. Boaz is hardly the stuff of heroes. For most of his story arc, he’s a passive character. He only reacts to Ruth (and by extension, Naomi’s) actions. We read that the whole of Bethlehem was abuzz with Naomi’s return (I suppose her family leaving for Moab a decade before would’ve been something of a scandal), yet it’s only after Ruth starts gleaning in his fields – mostly by accident, or Providence, as we’re led to believe – that he takes an interest in her and Naomi’s welfare. And it’s only after Ruth, again taking the initiative (and at great personal risk to herself I might add), sleeps with him that he convenes the elders, and essentially tricks Naomi and Ruth’s other guardian-redeemer into releasing his interest in their land and family to himself. Boaz is no Prince Charming.

To me, Boaz’s inaction precludes him from being the “Christ-like” character in this story. Jesus’ incarnation, life, death and ascension were all marked by Godly initiative. He came to earth to do the will of the Father – yet, as an equal and full partner in the Godhead, the decision to ultimately sacrifice his life for the sins of the world rested solely with him, and he decided that undeserving and unclean as we are, we were worth it. He did so with the full knowledge that some would choose to reject or abuse this sacrifice. He harboured no concern for himself, only for those who he came to redeem. This is in total contrast to Boaz, who hedged his bets at every turn.

In fact, if there’s a Christ-like character in the book of Ruth, it’s Ruth herself. Again and again, we see Ruth sacrificing herself for people. Rather than stay in Moab, Ruth’s devotion to the God of Israel and her concern for her destitute mother-in-law compelled her to go with Naomi to Bethlehem, where she became a foreigner in a foreign land. She risked her safety when she went to glean in the fields outside of the city, and her honour when she put her faith in Boaz and that he would eventually do the right thing.

In Ruth’s largely selfless actions we get an interesting and telling glimpse into the heart of Jesus. We see his concern for the “outsiders”, for the grieving and the destitute, for those betrayed by a broken society. We see him taking the initiative to save people again and again, at great cost to himself, with no thought of himself. We see what spurned (and spurns) him on to do these things: devotion to the Father, love for the broken, and faith that humanity can be redeemed.

If Boaz is representative of anyone, he surely represents us. Gifted with grace in abundance, we nevertheless continue to hedge our bets, tending to err on the side of caution when it comes to God’s love and the practical consequences of his love for the world and the way we live our lives. We try to keep him at a distance, afraid that he’ll want too much from us. We ignore his pursuit of us because there’s at least a part of us that doesn’t want to be found.

Yet on the threshing floors of our lives, Jesus finds us, and in giving of his love – his passionate love for us, though we tend to shy away from thinking of it those terms – we are redeemed, again and again, beyond the rhyme and reason of the world. And that’s how it should be – after all, Jesus was a foreigner in a foreign land…

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Shipping Shyan as a subversive act of self-definition; some thoughts

I don’t usually do writing prompts, but I’m in the mood to write and have no idea what to write about. WordPress’ prompt for today is “Interest”.

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I think the above picture sums up my approach to “interest” pretty well. Generally, I either like something or it’s nary a blip on the radar. It really is like a switch being flicked in my brain, and my Pinterest boards – most notably the “Fandom” one – bear testament to this switch being flicked on and off on various interests: knitting, crochet, Harry Potter, Christian Bale, Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, Tom Hardy, BBC Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch, drawing, photography, dolls, bullet journaling, Bible journaling, Pokemon Go, Dungeons & Dragons, Stranger Things, Jane Austen, historic fashion, 1900s New York and so on. Pinterest is like a beach littered with the junk of past interests.

My current interest (read: obsession) is the web series Buzzfeed Unsolved. A friend put me onto Unsolved: True Crime, where two guys dredge up unsolved cold cases and discuss the cases with likely (and sometimes wildly unlikely) theories as to what could’ve happened. There’s also a paranormal version which sees the hosts become the world’s unlikeliest (and unluckiest) ghost hunters. It’s fun and funny and the hosts have great chemistry; great enough that I googled whether they’re dating. The results were: they’re not, but a whole lot of people on Tumblr think they are, could or should be, and there are gifs to back up all positions.

Tumblr is sort of Obsession Ground Zero, at least for literature, movies and series. It’s ubiquitous enough that “Tumblr fangirl” has become a sort of slur among the kind of bros who generally don’t recognise their intense and obsessive interest in for example sports as being on par or even exceeding the dreaded “can’t even” of “Tumblr fangirls”. It’s interesting to contrast these double standards among the sexes’ stereotypical interests. Men’s interests are normalised: “Guys like sports.” There’s no stigma. But women’s interests don’t get the same acceptance. It’s “weird” when a woman obsesses over something. But this is an old ballgame. Men’s interests are seen as inherently reasonable (although reason is usually far from the mind of someone on the edge of their seat during some game involving a ball and several men), but women’s must tiptoe around the ever-present accusation of being “hysterical”.

I wonder why society, in general, seems to be so leery of women liking things or having interests. It is because it’s a fairly new concept, insofar as a hundred and fifty years ago, women’s interests tended to be restricted to certain fields? Is it because historically there’s been a lack of space for the female expression of interest, notably female sexual interest (which is often a big component in “fandom”)? Or is there something inherently threatening about how active an interest makes you – it’s an involved thing, one that requires initiative and pursuit, traits that are usually masculinised?

A great example of this was the fight for the Democratic nomination between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and later the election that pitted Democrat Clinton against Republican Trump. Clinton’s campaign engaged a large sector of society, most notably the female African-American vote. Her supporters received a lot of flack, not just from Republicans but especially from so-called “Bernie bros” – white, male Democrats who wanted Sanders (an independent) for the Democrat primary. Most of their criticism and engagement was gendered in nature. “You’re only voting for Hillary ’cause she’s a woman,” they argued, totally oblivious to (or in denial over) the fact that their interest in Sanders for the nomination was spurred on by his “white guyness”.

The fact remains that, at its core, their criticism of Hillary supporters often boiled down not to disputes about politics, but rather irateness that women of all colours had an intense interest and vocal investment in the elections. It seems that the world just doesn’t like women taking an interest because inevitably this interest is different than men’s, and demands the same platform, a platform they are not willing to part with. In his book The Ironic Christian’s Companion, Patrick Henry writes that people tend to dislike a roundtable approach for this very reason: with a roundtable, it’s not always obvious who is in charge. Taking an interest challenges the status quo.

Is all interest equal, though? No, probably not. But it doesn’t have to be in order to achieve a – I want to say higher purpose? Taking an interest is a fundamental act of self-definition: you like something or you don’t, and that says something about you saying something about yourself. It’s the “saying something about yourself” that’s important. In that way, women having interests can be a subversive act, because it’s a way for us to say something about ourselves in a world where we have more often been talked about than spoken with.

Book review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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There’s nothing like a TV adaptation to spur you on to read the classics you’ve been delaying in favour of novels that don’t want to make you kill yourself. With Hulu’s recent adaptation of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought I’d better get off my laurels and add Atwood’s flagship novel to my feminist credentials. We’ll pretend it didn’t take me a decade to get here.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian near/ever-present future where parts of the US have been taken over by a theocratic far-right. Under their regime, women are steadily and stealthily stripped of their rights and freedoms, leaving the protagonist Offred to navigate life as one of a number of “handmaids”, women attached to rich men for breeding purposes. The handmaids’ behaviour, appearance and movements are all strictly monitored and controlled. They have no personal agency and are simultaneously the desire and scorn of other parts of Gileadan society.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a fantastic book of course; presumably this is why they gave it a Booker prize! The prose is beautiful and hypnotic, capturing Offred’s dreamlike disassociation from the horror around her even as it suffocates her. I think it’s this contrast that makes the book so unsettling: it makes you question the appearance vs substance of everything, especially dearly-held notions of safety and order.

It’s no accident that Hulu should adapt The Handmaid’s Tale now when under Trump’s GOP the world’s most powerful nation leads a fresh assault on women’s rights. The Handmaid’s Tale is a timely reminder – and has been, since it was first published in the eighties – that civil liberties are hard won and far from guaranteed. While Atwood’s story may seem fantastical, its reality is never far-off.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Vintage Books
My rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.05/5)
The book’s best feature: The writing itself; its prophetic message.
The worst feature: The oppressing patriarchy.
Trigger warnings: Rape and misogyny in general.
You’ll like this if… Liking this isn’t the point, I think.

Weeding the garden: Gretha Wiid under fire

 

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Gretha Wiid. Facebook.

 

Popular Afrikaans lay speaker and self-appointed “relationship expert” Gretha Wiid has been in the news a lot lately. She’s come under fire for the controversial anti-LGBTI views she espouses in books aimed at ten- to thirteen-year-olds. In her Lyfslim (“Body Smart”)  books she writes that same-sex attraction is a choice and typically the result of, among other things, sexual abuse at a young age.

Wiid is in the same camp as Angus Buchan – a position she set up with his approval, hosting “Worthy Women” conferences to complement his “Mighty Men” ones – and espouses the same supposedly theologically indisputable “men are the heads of their households” and anti-gay nonsense that he does. That she’s so popular with women baffles me; as Lilly Nortje-Meyer points out in this illuminating article, Wiid and her staunchest followers are formeninists; essentially believing that a Christian woman’s core value revolves around her relationship to men. This – and the whole belief that men are the “prophets, priests and kings” of their homes – is unbiblical. I’d even go so far as to call it idolatry. But I digress.

I wanted to write about Wiid’s response to her criticism, which has been telling in the extreme. It’s not uncommon for people like Wiid to defend their actions by claiming sovereignty from criticism, which they usually do by saying that any opposition they experience is Satanic in origin. Wiid has done that; a few days after the debacle started, she posted to Facebook that no plans formed against her family would prosper. She skirted around the issue – her bizarre, and might I say entirely unscientific views on same-sex attraction – by saying that she loved gay people because her brother is gay*. Anyway, the non-apology didn’t work, and the South African Human Right’s Commission has confirmed that it’s investigating complaints of hate speech against her.

This even more that her weak-as-tea theology is what bugs me the most: her arrogance. She claims her Scripture-derived inspiration supersedes the inherent value of other people (nonbiblical. Seriously, has she met Jesus?), and she acts as though her interpretation of the Bible is supreme, despite the fact that it is hermeneutically unsound. To Wiid, any opposition must be the work of Satan. If she’s so eager to find Satan’s hand in her circumstances, she need look no farther than her pride and her ego.

I doubt any of what’s happening to Wiid will work to soften her heart; Christians of her persuasion are usually only a step away from a persecution complex, and I suspect that’s what we’ll see unfold in the next few weeks: how South Africa, and the “liberal gay agenda” is causing Bible-believing Christians to renounce their convictions or face punishment. I strongly suspect that she’ll fail to see that freedom of speech and belief does not cover the freedom to espouse absolute bullcrap that devalues the full personhood of others, and to impressionable children no less.

The bigger issue, of course, is how these books of her – published back in 2009 – were seen fit to publish in the first place. Wiid is published by Carpe Diem Media, who also have “perennial shelvers” like Isak Burger and Andries Enslin in their stable. Unsurprisingly Carpe Diem Media are responsible for the women’s magazine Finesse, a publication that centres its content around “modern Christian women” of the soft complementarian persuasion, mixing fashion with diet tips to “keep him interested” with soft-lit covers of local celebrities.

Yet for Wiid to be as popular as she is – more than 120 000 people like her Facebook page, after all – she has to be selling well. Her market is a niche one: white, Afrikaans-speaking conservative Christian women. Proportionately she probably has a big share of this market, so clearly she’s appealing to some people. And that’s most worrisome of all: that in 2017 Wiid easily drums up support for damaging, ludicrous and unscientific claims, all under the flag of “Christianity”, with the consent and even approval of so many people.


*Her brother has spoken out in support of her; interestingly, and probably in no way related to anything, he is also her manager. 

Authority in the Christian blogosphere

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Christian women find their voice and live out their callings online

Two weeks ago Tish Harrison Warren wrote a piece for Christianity Today titled “Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere?” In it, she wonders whether the kind of platforms people – especially women – gain through blogging should be accountable to some kind of ecclesial structure, much like pastors are theoretically accountable to their denominations.

Warren posed the piece as a rumination on responsibility: how can we make sure these bloggers – many of them laypersons, their “only” virtue being their popularity – “do” theology responsibly? She cited Jen Hatmaker as an example. Hatmaker – who has been in ministry for two decades and is a published author and popular speaker – recently announced that she is supportive of the full inclusion of LGBTI people in the church, a decision that proved unpopular in the evangelical world. (Read her response to the immediate flare-up of criticism here.)

Warren’s article wasn’t well-received, at least by my Twitter timeline’s standards. Warren was criticised for singling out Jen Hatmaker in a way that came across as chastising: how dare Hatmaker, “only” a blogger, deviate from the evangelical bottom line? The article read and felt like a gendered attack, Hatmaker acting as the negative example of what happens when those outside formal structures don’t toe the line.

Warren has since issued an apology to Hatmaker, but the article is still up on Christianity Today – the first part of a series called #AmplifyWomen. It’s ironic and telling that the first article in this series wasn’t about amplification at all, but about control.

Warren wouldn’t be the first woman delegated to keep her fellow women in check. One comes across it often; if you need an example, just skim any article relating to women on The Gospel Coalition blogs (alas, a favourite teacher of mine, Jen Wilkin, has participated in something similar). Warren has come across as sincere in her Twitter replies to criticism and praise, but I doubt she realises that a lot of her article’s backbone is internalised misogyny.

Make no mistake, the issue at play in Warren’s piece isn’t responsibility or accountability. As quite a few influential bloggers have pointed out, they are accountable: to their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, to the church or spiritual communities they form a part of, and to their friends, families, and peers. In fact, one could argue that the response to Warren’s piece is an indication of how much accountability there is in the popular Christian blogosphere: her article didn’t remain unchallenged, and the criticism was mostly fair and well thought out.

No, the issue Warren’s article skirts around is control. Unfortunately, there are still many church traditions where women aren’t allowed to preach, speak or teach (or if they are, it’s only to other women or to children). In these denominations, women aren’t allowed to have authority. So when these women, who are forced into silence by their churches, turn to the Internet to share their voice and listen to the voices of others like themselves, this presents a conundrum to the men and women in church denominations who delineate the function and authority of women. How do you control women speaking outside the traditional sphere of the church?

Well, you can’t, not without making it exceedingly obvious that the issue is really control rather than authority. If you’ve followed any of these popular female bloggers, authors, speakers and preachers (Jen Hatmaker, Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey to name the bare minimum), you realise that their passion and gifts are Spirit-derived, unlike the man-made ecclesial structures that would insist they aren’t allowed to write Spirit-filled words or share Spirit-filled truth or preach prophetic, Spirit-filled prophecies. If it becomes clear that so many women have the gift of teaching, preaching, and disciple-making outside official church structures, you have to ask yourself: are these women and their ministries the problem, or the fact that so many churches continue to deny them?

It’s interesting to me that, around the same time this piece was published, an editor over at The Gospel Coalition went on a Twitter and comment rant against what he calls “discernment bloggers”. He had had a run-in with the women who run Spiritual Sounding Board and The Wartburg Watch, both websites dedicated to blogging about spiritual abuse in the American church. This editor, Joe Carter, called blogs like these divisive and the women who run them “broken wolves in sheep’s clothing”.

Call me crazy, but I spot a pattern here: women who won’t adhere to the “it’s all fine, it’s alright” party line of patriarchal, male-dominated church and spiritual traditions are called out by the benefactors of those traditions when their unsanctioned, Spirit-filled commentary hits too close to home. These churches, like Warren’s article, claim it’s about God-ordained authority; but it’s really about male-centric control. If God gives women authority to witness outside the church, then their authority isn’t in question.

As someone who had once lost her voice to an oppressive, male-dominated church situation and rediscovered it through blogging, I cannot overstress how important the voice of female Christian bloggers are. Even when those voices are more conservative than I am or have a theology that differs from mine, I’ve been enriched by the writing and teaching of Christian women who blog, both those with large followings and those with a smaller audience. Sometimes simply the reminder that there are powerful, Spirit-led women using their gifts is more of a comfort than I can say.

Christianity is a much bigger place than any one church, any one denomination, or any one pastor would have you believe. Faith, discipleship and following Jesus don’t heed the lines humanity draws around them. More often than not, the Holy Spirit uses those lines as starting places rather than as borders. These lines are porous, made to break through, much like sheep pens are meant to be left if the flock are to find places to graze, explore, grow and mature.

When an article like Warren’s appears, I see it as an indication that things are right rather than that things are wrong. It means that somewhere, someone is toddling from their sheep pen, following their Shepherd out into the world. It means that someone has chosen to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than the strictures of men.