Where are all the women? What my bookshelf says about the continuing effects of patriarchy


The other day, I did one of those “10 books that stayed with me” status updates on Facebook. It’s a thing that’s been going around for a while now. (After more than 130,000 such lists were tallied, Harry Potter came out on top, in case you were wondering.)

For my list, I chose to highlight 10 books that had a lasting theological impact. Later that day, one of my friends gently pointed out what, in hindsight, seems like a glaring omission:

There were no women on my list.

I have to be honest. I was a little embarrassed when I realized this. And alarmed. What bothered me even more than the fact that there were no women was the fact that I hadn’t even noticed my failure to include any.

I’m committed to gender equality. I’ve written about my theological journey from complementarianism to egalitarianism, and how it’s impacted my marriage on a practical level. I’ve shared how we’re trying to raise our daughter without all the baggage of patriarchy—writing about it here, here, here, and here, for example.

But a theoretical commitment to something can blind you to the ways in which your behavior is still shaped by its antithesis.

I can pen a rebuttal to Dave Ramsey’s caricature of the poor, for example. Yet I haven’t always honored my responsibility to be openhanded toward those in need.

I can write passionately about racial reconciliation in Ferguson. But I am not unscathed by generations of prejudice.

I can flaunt my egalitarian credentials on the interwebs—without even realizing how bad I’ve been at listening to the voices of women.

A theoretical opposition to patriarchy doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve stopped perpetuating it.


After reading my friend’s comment on Facebook, I scanned my collection of theology books. Then I started counting.

Only one was written by a woman.

Hoping for a better result, I expanded my search to include popular religious titles as well as academic ones. True, I’ve got books by Sarah Cunningham (Dear Church) and Carolyn Custis James (The Gospel of Ruth) on my shelf—and books by Rachel Held Evans (A Year of Biblical Womanhood) and Sarah Bessey (Jesus Feminist) on my Kindle. Rachel and Sarah in particular have shaped my thinking in meaningful and profound ways.

But the balance was still overwhelmingly tilted in one direction: 89% of the religious books on my shelf (or phone) were written by men.

Now, there are likely a number of reasons for the imbalance. My friend who first pointed it out suggested it had something to do with the church background I grew up in. True enough. When I decided to go to seminary, I was encouraged to avoid schools that accepted women into ordination-track degree programs—the assumption being that this was an indicator of “dangerous” liberal tendencies. But I have long since shifted my horizons.

Some of it surely has to do with this unsettling stat: only a quarter of all PhDs in theology go to women (HT Richard Beck, Kieran Healy). Which means at least 75% of those who are in a position to write academic theological books are male. I find it hard to believe this is because women just aren’t into theology, when there is a far more likely explanation: women have been told in various ways—some implicit, some more direct—that theology is a man’s pursuit.

Even in churches that are committed to gender equality, the vast majority of lay and ordained leaders are male—including two thirds of the employed priests in my own denomination. All of which is why, while writing for Elizabeth Esther’s blog last year, Stephanie Drury concluded:

Straight [white] men in Christian culture simply don’t… examine the ways in which they are sexist, and this is the most difficult factor in the move towards wholeness.

Besides, none of this changes the fact that the ratio of women to men on my bookshelf is worse than the ratio at academic institutions. I have no excuse.

As Maggi Dawn, a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, writes:

There are so many women with interesting things to say, some writing about feminism but many more simply writing about areas of theology that used to be thought of as a male preserve—or, the earlier you go, writing theology against the culture that denied them access to what was assumed to be a male preserve.

She even came up with a reading list—without having to put too much thought into it—of female voices in theology. Voices that many of us just aren’t listening to.

This has to change. My bookshelf has to change.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’m going to be working from Maggi Dawn’s list to expand my horizons. Reading books by female theologians will not automatically make me a better specimen of gender equality. But it might help me to listen better to female voices. And doing so will enrich my theological perspective.

Maggi Dawn’s list of female theological voices can be found here (HT Laura Everett). What books or authors would you add to the list?

I received dozens of suggestions in response to this post, which I’ve compiled here, along with a list of the next 10 books I’m going to read:


For those exiled to the wilderness…

CBMW’s review of Jesus Feminist — and the fact that they won’t allow comments on their website — prompted this epic Twitter response from Sarah Bessey. (This link is the recap Sarah posted on her Facebook page afterward.)

The most telling line in the whole review (which, to CBMW’s credit, struck a softer tone than much of what I’ve seen from them in the past) was this:

“At the end of the day I do not see how we can do that together.”

By “do that,” they didn’t mean find common ground on gender roles. Obviously that’s not going to happen anytime soon. They meant anything Christians might normally do together.

“Love the lost.”

“Proclaim the gospel.”

“Serve in ministry.”

If you disagree with us, we can’t have anything to do with you.

This, a week after the full extent of women’s exclusion from the whole Christian conference scene was laid bare. Yet again, women who feel God’s call to lead, serve, teach, etc. are denied a place at the table. Exiled to the wilderness.

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The thing is, God has a habit of meeting people out in the wilderness.

That’s where he met Moses after his own people rejected him. In exile, Moses became a “foreigner in a foreign land” — not one but at least two steps removed from anything vaguely resembling home. Yet that’s where God met him in a burning bush and gave him a new calling.

The wilderness is where God met the Hebrew slaves after they were driven from the only home they’d ever known. For a whole generation, they wandered the wilderness, flanked by hostile nations who wouldn’t let them pass through, much less take a seat and refresh themselves at their tables. It was there in the wilderness that God came to Israel on a mountain. It was in the wilderness that God never left their midst, going ahead of them as a cloud by day and a fire by night.

The wilderness is where God met Jacob, not once but twice, after he fled his brother’s vengeful wrath.

The wilderness is where Elijah took refuge when the political-religious establishment of his day threatened to kill him. Elijah pleaded with God to do it for them. But instead of ending his life, God fed him. Then he revealed himself to Elijah in a gentle whisper, telling the broken prophet that he was not alone. There were 7,000 others like him, there in the wilderness.

The wilderness is where God sent John the Baptist to preach a baptism of repentance. Like the Essenes at Qumran, John lived on the fringes of Jewish religious life. Yet the masses poured “out from Jerusalem” to hear him speak. Those who could not find a seat at the establishment’s table found something even better in the wilderness.

The wilderness is where Jesus prepared a ministry in which he would confront an establishment that didn’t always like making room for outsiders and outcasts at its table.

The wilderness is where Paul, who’d made a career of driving others into exile, found his own calling and emerged with a new mission: to welcome all manner of people to God’s table.

So when they try to silence you and deny you a place at their table, don’t be afraid to go out into the wilderness and sing your song anyway. You won’t be alone. There are others there.

And more often than not, the wilderness is where God shows up.


UPDATE: In honor of Kelly, who noticed a glaring omission from my list…

The wilderness is where God met Hagar, after she was spurned by the  man who had taken her as his concubine and impregnated her. Hagar and her son were sent away to die, but God heard their cries and answered them in the wilderness. He promised Hagar a legacy of her own. When her family made their home in the desert, God was with them.

Highlights of the week

Just some of things I loved reading this week…

From Rachel Held Evans on being labeled “divisive”:

Like most Christians, when I read the prayer of Jesus from John 17, my heart aches for the day when the Church will be unified, when our love for one another and for the world will be our greatest witness to the truth of the gospel message. And any time another Christian suggests I’m not doing my part to help make this happen, I feel a sharp stab of guilt.

Maybe I shouldn’t say anything.

Maybe I should just let it go.

Maybe I was wrong to bring it up.

At times, these are good instincts to follow and it’s best just to let something go. But far too often, the “stop-being-so-divisive” line is used by those in power to diffuse, or even silence, difficult conversations about why things might need to change. 

Best analysis of the male-dominated Christian conference scene:

While I don’t think we can conclude that the Christian conference industry is downright sexist, we can say that most conferences have some serious work to do if they want their stage to look anything like the 21st century church.

Micah J. Murray’s piece, which went all kinds of viral, on how feminism hurts men (satire alert):

Because of feminism, men can no longer walk down the street without fear of being catcalled, harassed, or even sexually assaulted by women. When he is assaulted, the man is blamed – the way he dressed he was “asking for it”.

Because of feminism, there are no major Christian conferences about how to act like men, where thousands of men can celebrate their manliness and Jesus (and perhaps poke fun at female stereotypes).

Favorite Sarah Bessey quote of the week:

We serve a God who builds tables in the wilderness, who makes streams flow in deserts, who causes the barren places to spring forth with new growth. We see in the Gospels the heart of God to heal us, to save us, to set us free. We see what life looks like in the Kingdom of God, over and over again, the creative and extravagant grace that cuts through the brambles and the boundaries to the heart. Some part of me thinks it’s a delight to Him: a delight to make a way where there is no way, to do a new thing among the ruins, to surprise us.

Second favorite Sarah Bessey quote of the week:

The truth is that patriarchal systems hurt men as much as they hurt women. Just as women were not created to be oppressed and so it damages us, I believe that men were not created to be the oppressors and that it will damage them.

Tamara Rice on steamrolling nuance when it comes to the atonement. She’s writing specifically about the nouthetic or “biblical” counseling movement, but I believe her insight is relevant to other forms of fundamentalism as well:

This thing I experienced… was a heels-dug-in-deep stubborn refusal to allow for a both/and with Jesus or any nuance of complexity, even though the reality is we serve an infinite and complex God. We were speaking of the most important act in human history. Were we really saying that there could only ever be one single reason that Jesus came and died? That despite the most beloved verse in the New Testament, we were going to trivialize and minimize God’s indescribable love… lest we become obsessed with self? Were we really changing God’s story just to shore up what we perceived as a slippery slope to self-centeredness?

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove on what real hospitality looks like (this certainly sums up my experience in the Middle East several years ago):

But if you travel to the Middle East, you learn that this isn’t the only way people survive in the world. A friend in Iraq told me that hospitality is a pact in his culture. When I eat at his table, he is not only welcoming me into his home. He is promising to defend my life with his own until the food that I have eaten is digested. I’m not sure whether it’s possible to run a fast-food restaurant if you really believe that.

Jamie the Very Worst Missionary/Best Blogger speaks for all of us reluctant huggers:

As soon as I saw my son’s friend’s dad, my arms began to rise like a hungry zombie, “We are going to hug you, Semi-familiar-Dude-in-the-grocery-store!”, and my brain was like, “WHAT IS HAPPENING?!”. So my arms were indicating they wanted a hug but my face was implying that a hug was a really bad idea. That poor guy.

Favorite tweet of the week:


And my own most read post:
How I won’t be getting a shotgun when my daughter starts dating, after all

Anyone can be a Jesus feminist… even me

Sarah Bessey’s new book Jesus Feminist (reviewed here) came out this week. So now it’s time for the synchroblog. Technically, I already wrote a post on “why I’m a Jesus feminist.” But like most people, there’s more to this story than can fit in a single post, so here goes…

I am a Jesus feminist because of people who believed that anyone can change, even me.

I can only claim this identity, which Sarah articulated so beautifully in her book, because there were people in my life who helped me envision a better way of being human together.

You see, I wasn’t always a Jesus feminist. I didn’t always view women and men equally.

I spent the first part of my adult life on the other end of the spectrum. (Jesus chauvinist?) I belonged to a church whose pastor taught that no woman, married or single, should work outside the home. I evaluated prospective seminaries partly on whether they held a “biblical” view of gender — meaning “no girls allowed” in the M.Div. program.

But there were people in my life who had tasted another way, and they didn’t write me off just because I hadn’t.

There were college friends like Jamie and Erin. Whenever our evangelical Christian school would invite a female pastor to speak in chapel, invariably we’d argue about feminism afterward at lunch — usually while the rest of our friends ate in uncomfortable silence. My arguments (including the ad hominem “I’ve never heard a woman give a decent sermon”) were dripping with condescension. I was too proud to admit it then, but Jamie and Erin were more than a match. They raised questions I couldn’t answer. They found the chinks in the armor of my chauvinistic worldview.

But more importantly, they accepted me. They didn’t stop being my friend. They showed me a better way of being human in how they treated me, even when I didn’t return the favor.

There were teachers — even at my complementarian seminary — who, without dismantling the whole system of patriarchy, subverted it anyway. Like the professor who asked, “If Paul really believed that women shouldn’t speak in church, why did he give ground rules for women to pray and prophesy — in the same letter, no less?” I had never thought of that before, maybe because I only read the proof texts that seemed to confirm my presuppositions.

There were others, too. Like the respected theologian who once lost his job at a well-known Bible school because he refused to denounce his wife’s egalitarian views. One day, I asked him why, and he patiently shared the story of his own journey from patriarchy to equality. It had cost him, but it was worth it.

That was the day I became a Jesus feminist. That was the day I embraced another vision for humanity.


I am a cynic at heart.

In Jesus Feminist, Sarah recalls her decision to bid farewell to the angry, self-righteous blogger persona:

Years ago, I practiced anger and cynicism, like a pianist practices scales over and over… I jumped, Pavlovian, to right every wrong and defend every truth, refute every inflammatory blog post, pontificate about every question… I called it critical thinking to hide my bitter and critical heart, and I wondered why I had no real joy in this ongoing search for truth.

She saw another way and she took it. Instead of being yet another online prophet of everything that’s wrong with the world, she chose to be a voice for what is good in our world and for what could be. She pivoted toward “hope and grace, toward freedom over fear, life over death.”

I’m still trying to make that shift. It’s easier for me to be the cynic. Maybe it’s a hangover from my fundamentalist past, a vestige of believing that things are only going to get worse until Jesus finally presses the “destruct” button.

But I know it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe, just maybe, God has something better for us here and now — which is another reason why I’m a Jesus feminist.

When I get angry with the world, when it feels like some people will never change, one thought keeps sneaking past my defenses:

You did.

And there it is. Hope. The invitation to help someone else envision a better way of being human, just as others did for me.

It happened for me. Why can’t it happen for someone else?

Today, I have a three year-old daughter. I don’t have time to be a cynic anymore. I don’t have time to listen to the voice that says this is the best we can do, that the march toward equality can only go so far, so fast.

Patriarchy isn’t God’s best plan for humanity, and it isn’t God’s best plan for my daughter.

At the end of the day, I’m a Jesus feminist because she deserves a better world. I’m a Jesus feminist because if I believe people can change, that they can discover a better way of being human together — just as others believed was possible for me — then maybe in my own small way I can help bring about a better, more equal world for my daughter.

That’s why I’m a Jesus feminist.


Jesus Feminist: a review

Jesus FeministWhen I was younger, I rationalized my opposition to women in ministry by claiming I’d never heard a female pastor who could give a decent sermon. (At the time I attended a Christian college that periodically invited female pastors to speak in chapel.)

It was circular, self-serving logic, I know. I was hardly the most objective judge, what with my my hostility to the very notion of women as pastors. (And the fact that I was 20 and didn’t know anything about anything.)

I’m glad I got over myself — not least because otherwise, I would have never learned to hear some of the prophetic voices God has raised up, who just so happen to have two x chromosomes.

After reading my advance copy of Jesus Feminist, all I can say is Sarah Bessey is one of those prophetic voices. She describes herself as a “happy clappy kind of Christian… who speaks in tongues and lays on hands.” (In other words, we represent different traditions.)

And dang she can preach.

Jesus Feminist doesn’t fixate on everything that’s wrong with patriarchy. While Sarah suggests that patriarchy doesn’t represent God’s dream for humanity (and I agree), she’d rather spend her time imagining another way, discovering what is God’s dream for humanity, and inviting us all to explore it together.

Sarah celebrates women past and present who’ve demonstrated their full membership in God’s kingdom in myriad ways — some ordinary, some extraordinary. She picks up the thread of redemptive movement in the Scriptures and follows it all the way through to our world today. (Because Sarah is someone who believes that “God is still speaking, still moving, still alive, still loving.”)

In the Scriptures, there are at least two kinds of prophetic voices. One is the voice of righteous indignation, raging against the machinations of idolatry and injustice. Then there’s the gentle voice of hope, whispering (or singing) to us about a new reality, a new way of being human, a better way to live.

Sarah is that second kind of prophet. While some of us want to knock tables over, Jesus Feminist reminds us that sometimes it’s better to sit at them, armed with nothing more than a cup of tea (or something stronger), and see if together we can imagine a better way to live, to celebrate each other, and embrace one another as equal partners in God’s kingdom.

There are plenty of writers who can land a rhetorical punch, who can hitch patriarchy to the whipping post and let loose.

Sarah has done something even better with her book: she’s elevated the conversation.

Why I’m a Jesus feminist (and I haven’t even read the book yet)


When I was growing up, feminism was a dirty word.

Actually, we didn’t call them feminists. We called them feminazis.

Militant, man-hating, bra-burning radicals who taught literature classes and took orders from Hillary Clinton and outsourced their childrearing duties (assuming they had any children) to some Orwellian, quasi-socialist village.

Then I became a feminist myself.

It started in college, when a friend in my political philosophy class took time to explain to me what feminism actually was. Turns out it didn’t have anything to do with the caricature in my head. (Heck, even the whole bra-burning thing proved to be an urban legend.)

It continued in seminary, when I learned that the arguments used to rationalize the subjugation of women are the same ones that were used to justify slavery a century and a half ago.

Then I fell in love… and found that mutuality offers a better starting point for a happy marriage than hierarchy. (Eleven years and counting.)

Then I became a father… and realized I couldn’t settle for anything less than my daughter’s full equality — in her family, in her church, and in her world.

41yNlmBxf0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I came to believe that gender equality is rooted in creation itself, reaffirmed and renewed in the person and work of Jesus. That’s why I can’t wait for Sarah Besey’s new book… and that’s why I embrace the label Jesus feminist.

I’m a Jesus feminist because I believe my daughter is fully and gloriously human, that she and I bear the same divine imprint, that she is not mine, that she is free to discover for herself what God made her to be, and that the possibilities open to her are endless.

I’m a Jesus feminist because the gospels insist we allow women to sit alongside men at the feet of our Messiah — that is, to take the posture of a disciple. The story of Mary and Martha is not a Sunday school lesson on the importance of setting one’s priorities; it’s a radical affirmation that my daughter has as much right as anyone to call herself a disciple of Jesus.

I’m a Jesus feminist because some of the finest preachers I know are women, including those whose main pulpit is a blog (cc: Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans).

I’m a Jesus feminist because women were the first apostles, the first to witness the resurrection. If not for their courage, vision, and willingness to see what Jesus’ male disciples couldn’t — if not for that, I wouldn’t be a Jesus anything.

I’m a Jesus feminist because I won’t accept a world which turns my daughter into an object — neither the evangelical modesty culture that teaches girls to be ashamed of their bodies nor the hyper-sexualized culture that tells them their bodies (and their willingness to flaunt them) are all they have to offer.

I’m a Jesus feminist because the apostle Paul said there isn’t “male and female” anymore. Just one body, one family, one inheritance in which we all have equal share.

And someday, if my daughter feels a calling deep in her bones to share this message with others — or if she feels called in any other way to lead — I will be right there cheering her on.

Because even though I haven’t read Sarah’s book yet, I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus feminists do.

P.S. Go and buy the book when it comes out.