Monday, June 4, 2012

As a woman, I will read Esther on my own terms, thank you very much

Hey guess what.  There's a women's bible study starting at church.  We'll be reading Esther.  Or maybe Ruth.  Or maybe Proverbs 31.

And in this case, my rolling my eyes and being offended tends to overcome my enthusiasm for studying the bible.

I mean, there's nothing wrong with having bible studies just for women or just for men.  (And I really do have a great time there.)  There's nothing wrong with studying the book of Esther.  It's in the bible- if you study it, you're gonna find some good stuff.  There's nothing wrong with a group of women studying Esther.

But what's wrong is that HOW COMPLETELY DISPROPORTIONATE that is.  Why does it seem like EVERY SINGLE TIME, the women's bible study is studying one of those "women" passages?

I mean, just because Ruth is a woman, her story is somehow more important to women than the average bible story is?

I mean, is it?  This is a valid question.  Is there a reason it would be particularly important to women?  Women want female role models or something?  Can we avoid the extreme of "the church only talks about the men in the bible" without going to the other extreme, "Christian women should only study the passages specifically about women"?

"Oh, you're a girl.  Here, you should read, out of the hundreds of pages in the bible, these particular couple pages, about a few slightly obscure women.  Have at it."  Dude, I'm not dumb.  I'm gonna read the entire thing.

Or maybe it's because obviously, if a group of Christians is going to study Ruth, it has to be a women's group.  I mean, it doesn't make sense that men would read that.  OH WAIT.  IT'S THE BIBLE.

(When I mentioned this over in a comment on Rachel Held Evans's blog, another commenter had the idea of challenging Christian men to study and learn from the "women" passages in the bible.  I love it.  Because every Christian studies Jesus and Paul and David, but only women study Esther and Ruth.  What's with that?  If they're really such good role models, aren't they good for both men and women?  Or is it "we needed to come up with SOMEONE for the women... eh, Esther's kinda lame but it's the best we got"?  Because no matter how you interpret this, it's offensive.)

Oh and here's a wild idea: Can the Proverbs 31 woman also be a role model for men?  Not "this is the kind of wife you should look for" but "you should be like her"?  Wow I'm gonna have to go think about that.  That has totally never occurred to me before.

You know what I want to see?  A women's conference whose advertising flier has a picture of a dragon.  Because dude, I want to fight dragons.  If your women's bible study or Christian conference even marginally associates itself with dragons, SIGN ME UP!

(The dragon is a metaphor for... ummm... well it doesn't matter.  Dragons are awesome.  Don't question it.)

Like dude, don't get me wrong, the conferences that advertise with flowers and pastels are great and God speaks to people there and everything, but really, why do the fliers need to look all "feminine"?  To make sure men don't sign up?

I'm not particularly interested in "being a godly woman."  I want to be awesome and follow Jesus, and it just so happens that if I do that, I am technically a "godly woman" but that's so not my goal.

So I want to know: How do the majority of Christian women feel about this?  Is everyone else happy with the flowers and lack of dragons?  Is it because I'm a nerd girl that I feel this way?

Do we really need to study Ruth that much?  Like, is there a valid reason why the story of Ruth would be particularly important/meaningful for women? 

Is there some sort of equivalent thing the church does to men?

49 comments:

  1. By the way, this week I am participating in Rachel Held Evans's "Week of Mutuality"- blogging about equality of women in the church. http://rachelheldevans.com/announcing-week-of-mutuality

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    1. I've been a part of the Church for years, and I can tell you with certainty that the women in the it aren't equals - some are funnier, some are better singers, some have a lower IQ, and still others have nicer hair.

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    2. ^_^ Haha. I'll interpret your comment as pretending you can't imagine that women would be restricted/ treated differently from men. Because that would clearly be absurd.

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    3. Well, I was trying to be witty, but I meant what I said. I don't think the all women in the Church are equal. Aren't you comparing women to each other when you say you're blogging about the equality of women in the Church?

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    4. Umm. By "the equality of women in the church" I mean that women are equal to men and shouldn't be restricted based on the fact that they are women.

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    5. Ah. It seemed that "the equality of women" compard women to women. I see now that you mean to compare them to men in regards to equality of restrictions, right?

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    6. Surely you don't mean ALL restrictions, right?

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    7. Let's have separate bathrooms for men and women. But I mean don't restrict the body of Christ by saying women can't be pastors, etc, or that women MUST do some certain role at church.

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  2. What good points. I don't think I've thought about this before. It's been awhile since I've participated in a Bible Study, and whenever I did a women's bible study, it was usually Beth Moore. She's not about sticking to the "girlie" passages. She puts a womanly spin on it, but dives deep into David and Jesus and all those manly Bible characters.

    I went to a women's retreat several years ago and the theme was like a spa theme. I'm all about a little pampering, but it felt like it wasn't really focused on the Bible, like, y'know, it should be. We stuck cucumbers on our eyes and soaked our feet but didn't really dive into the Bible. I went home exfoliated but not really spiritually fed.

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    1. I was about to say "sounds like that retreat needed more dragons" but scratch that- sounds like it needed more bible.

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    2. I agree that Beth Moore's talks aren't gender-specific, either in focus or delivery. That said, I sit through most of them thinking how incredibly blessed the men of the church would be if they too could hear her teaching, her perspectives, a different spin on the passages they've heard so many times. The gender divide ends up depriving them of so many opportunities for spiritual growth, just as it does us.

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  3. Steph,

    You seem fairly bitter about your group's decision to study Esther. While I imagine the women's group you are a part of made the decision with good reason and in accordance with wisdom and prayer, I hope that your participation in the study is an opportunity for you to channel your frustration with screwed-up expectations of women into an example of graciousness and eye-opening discussion about the Biblical and modern characters of in our Church.

    I hope you aren't too harsh on your sisters, though, because they seem to be following Godly wisdom. God instructs older women to teach younger women, and I imagine your group formed as an act of obedience. And because there are many avenues of discipleship, spiritual growth, teaching, and learning, I imaginge (though I have never participated in a women's group) that a primary goal of a group dedicated to women might be to discuss issues particular to women (such as the challenges of menopause and pregnancy)by looking to heroic females who obey the LORD (like Ruth, Esther, Mary, Jael or Abigail).

    I hope the study is useful to you and that you are useful to the study!

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    1. Ah, let me clarify this is not actually about a real bible study I'm in- I'm just using that as an example because I've seen it over and over. And I want to make it clear that when I have been in women-only small groups, they've been great- it's a bunch of Christians who are my friends and want to study the bible, so we're gonna get some good stuff out of it. But my problem is there seems to be this assumption that women should study the "women" passages in the bible.

      But uh, menopause and pregnancy? Do men's groups discuss circumcision and going bald?

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    2. Shouldn't women study what God says about women in the Bible? It makes sense to me. When tennis players want to be excellent tennis players, they learn from good tennis coaches, practice their backhand, and read books about serving techniques. Electrical engineers study electromagnetics, learn from professor like Garverick and Newman, and practice making circuitry on breadboards. Shouldn't women who want to be excellent women learn from their heroic and Godly predacessors and the wisdom God has stored for them in his word?

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    3. Yeah, menopause and pregnancy! SOme years ago a women in my church wanted to vent and pray about the struggles she was facing in menopause, but it wasn't an appropriate topic to discuss during the sharing time where everyone was present. I imagine that females might give better advice (and speak more freely) about pregancy in a group of women than a mixed-gender group. Mary might be a fantastic role model for a women facing an unexpected or complicated pregnancy!

      There isn't a very large discoure on circumcision in male groups (we don't really even have memories of it), and I don't think baldness creates serious problems. Topics that men might grapple with and need to discuss in a male-only environment might be things like the consequences of prostate cancer, becoming a first-time father, or erectile dysfunction.

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    4. Ahh. Hmm. "Shouldn't women study what God says about women in the Bible?" I guess we're coming from very different perspectives on this- I don't know how to put this into words besides saying I tend to think it doesn't really matter that I'm a woman. To me, looking specifically at women in the bible because I'm a woman makes about as much sense as looking at the ways God spoke to tall people in the bible, because I'm tall. The only thing I specifically want woman-focused advice on is dating. For everything else in my life, I don't see why there's any reason to think I'm more similar to the average woman than to the average man.

      And I'm guessing I feel this way because of my experience as a math/science nerd. I'd totally rather be with a group of nerds (typically overwhelmingly male) than a group of women.

      Thanks for all your comments! ^_^ By the way, my post for Wednesday will talk more about this kind of stuff.

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    5. Agree. Isn't the purpose of Biblical study to (a) learn more about God / Jesus / Holy Spirit, and (b) learn how to live as a Christian. Those are all fairly gender neutral topics, unless you're a hard-core complementarian (and then the difference between a male Christian's religious practices and a female Christian's religious practices are going to be greater than the differences between a devout Christian's and a devout Muslim's daily religious practice. Sad but true.)

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    6. "Isn't the purpose of Biblical study to (a) learn more about God / Jesus / Holy Spirit, and (b) learn how to live as a Christian. Those are all fairly gender neutral topics..."

      Well-said.

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  4. I'd be remiss to withold my appreciation for your Proverbs 31 challenge to men. It's terribly clever! I DO want to be like her in some ways - particularly in regard to her incredibly industrious work ethic and her finacial savvy and thorough preperation. I find that the men of our generation lack those things. I hope to gain them and inspire other men as she inspires me!

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  5. I feel you, especially on the end of having men read biblical passages on women. I think the lack of that happening probably bothers me more than women focusing on women in the bible. I think sometimes there's the feeling in some women that we can relate more to the women in the bible than the men, having struggled with various levels of societal inequity and certain temptations that might be more common in women than in men (just as men have temptations more common to them as a whole).

    We had a women's Esther study at Scranton last summer, and it was amazing (as you say, of course we'll get something out of it- it's the bible). Even though we can still learn much from studying men's choices/consequences, I think it was important for me to see a woman stepping out in faith, out of her comfort zone, out of her "place" as a woman, risking everything and paving the way for so many to be saved. I guess it just felt more risky to me because she was a woman.. her faith meant more to me than a man's would have in the same situation because of her position. It helped me to feel more confident in taking on a scary calling as a woman (I could give more deets but this is getting long). Maybe it's just that particular study spoke to me, though. Should I feel that God speaks to me through the way He's spoken to men in the bible? Sure - we all do all the time, so I agree with you that it's disproportionate.

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    1. That's cool- thanks for bringing this up, because I hadn't thought about that. Maybe it does matter to women that we can study awesome people in the bible that were women. Hmm, since I never cared about that before, now I'm wondering what percentage of women appreciate/value reading about women because they are women.

      And I can speculate about why I totally have never cared about that- is it because all my life I've gotten people saying "oh hey you're a girl and you're good at math" and I hate that, so I don't really think at all in terms of Esther's actions being more significant because she was a woman? Maybe?

      Although, the culture was way different back then, so it probably actually DID mean something that she was a woman.

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  6. Thank you for this post!
    I have been avoiding women's Bible studies because of the frilly, flowery, Esther, Ruth whirlwind. Why is it that 1 woman in 1 chapter of Proverbs is considered the absolute perfect model for Christian women EVERYWHERE IN ALL TIMES? Can men not learn from this character of the Bible as well? And can women not strive to exude qualities found in other Biblical characters?
    I absolutely agree that men should study the women of the Bible! It is THE BIBLE! The fact that men are not studying the WHOLE Bible and women are focusing on three specific women (over and over again) results in Christians being oblivious to women like Huldah, Anna, the wise woman at Abel Beth Macaah, Priscilla, Junia, and Pheobe. This may be one of the reasons the Church is so confused and hung up on "gender roles" and "biblical manhood and womanhood". One only needs to read these stories to see that women are just as capable to lead and teach as men!
    All this picking and choosing which Bible passages are important and which ones are not is missing the point. Let us ALL sit down and study the WHOLE Bible, because everyone can learn from the women and men found in it.
    Let me know if you hear about any women's Bible studies with dragons. I want to sign up too!

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    1. Thanks! Yeah I agree- let's ALL read THE WHOLE BIBLE.

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  7. I totally agree with you on the weird slant given to women conferences towards flowery pastels. That's actually what's turned me off going to what is by all accounts a powerful and inspiring event for women called the Colour Conference. It's all about the pretty if you go by the website art, and whilst I'm all for a bit of girly tea-drinking in the context of the odd bridal shower, I don't find it of huge appeal when I'm looking for an empowering prophetic women conference.
    But then, I find any big grouping of women together to be a bit intimidating so I prefer to go to normal conferences, you know, where the preachers male and female talk to both sexes at the same time without discrimination. That said I would totally go to a dragon-themed conference for women if it existed.

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    1. Thanks! Yeah I bet some women like women-only conferences, and some women like men-and-women conferences, and that's fine. ^_^

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  8. I would also be up for a dragon-themed women's conference! :) Like you, I am much more comfortable with the nerd population than the general population, so I always seem to have more in common with men than with other women.

    I found this post from Rachel Held Evans's site, and I have always found the only-women-study-Ruth-and-Esther thing to be quite annoying. Surely men can learn from Ruth and Esther, too, and women can learn from the men in the Bible!

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    1. Dragons for me too! We can start up an international female dragon conference! Having just finished a class on the patriarchal influences of mainstream literature I am finding it incredibly depressing to be finding these same themes running throughout the church.

      If only they taught more on women like Jael in these groups. If any biblical women were biblical Godly dragons, she would be one. But then again, she might give the rest of us ideas ...

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  9. Amen! I love this. As a woman, I have yet to be excited about a women's bible study in church. I think this is, at least in part, because I am more logical than emotional and in my experience thus far, women's bible studies tend to be emotionally heavy but theologically light. The subtle implication being that women do not benefit from (are not capable of?) serious textual study. I'd love to be a part of a study of, say, the minor prophets, but as long as women's bible studies insist on yet another discussion on why modest is hottest, I'll look for a different group.

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  10. There really aren't any "mens books" of the Bible I can think of, but the Church certainly does have Bible Studies (or in this case, BS) for men that emphasize those traditional roles. And I'll admit that over the years, with so many "godly men and women" telling me that was really God's best for us, I started to listen.
    But it stuck in my craw. Always. For years I lived a double life, a "godly husband and father and youth pastor and stuff" who really thought "there is no male nor female in Jesus" meant just that, and that we all ought to submit one to another, even husbands and wives. I kept pretty quiet about what I really believed in public-- to my shame.
    I finally got free.
    And you know what? I read all the "womens" bits. I can't say that I ever wanted to be Deborah or Jael, but I always wanted to have those women around me.
    And I'm not quiet now.

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    1. Thanks for you comment! It's good to hear a man perspective on this, and also good to know you believe "there is no male or female in Christ" and are "not quiet". ^_^

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  11. Saw a reference to dragons on RHE's Mutuality List and just had to read this. I've complained about the lavender, flowered, calligraphy script of women's ministries for years, but the problem is not just about stereotyped graphic design. The assumption is that women are not only attracted to these images, but that women are somehow spiritually different from men-that their spiritual formation and approach to scripture should be different.

    My spiritual formation pastor (who's a man) and I have had multiple conversations about the fact that there is no difference between how men and women should read the Bible and how they grow as followers of Jesus. (As an aside, there are men who think the assumption that all men respond to sports analogies is insulting, too).

    Finally, I just have to mention that I am a woman and that my favorite movie of all time is "The Two Towers." I love dragons (but love a good sword fight even more), and in three years of blogging have never quoted Beth Moore. There are whole lot more of us than people think.

    Thanks for a great post! I'll be putting it up on The Ruthless Monk Facebook page

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    1. Thanks! ^_^ I like this: "The assumption is that women are not only attracted to these images, but that women are somehow spiritually different than men- that their spiritual formation and approach to scripture should be different."

      Also thanks for mentioning the "sports analogies for men" thing- I'd never thought about that.

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  12. This had always annoyed me - women's Bible studies on Esther...with some twist on how you must beautify yourself for your husband (my husband hates make-up and false stuff anyway) and other summaries about submission etc. Now, I like reading Esther and Ruth, but the focus on such is disproportionate. As such, it's put me off women's groups. Women's meetings now instill a sense of fear within me, and I much prefer meetings and studies which involve both the brothers and the sisters.
    Having said that, I would consider going to a women's group if it was promoted with a flier with a dragon on it - it would certainly stimulate my interest.
    Thanks, sister! And GOd bless you.

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    1. Thanks for your comment! Whoa, if Esther is somehow about "beautifying yourself for your husband" then what does that say to single women...

      Yeah I agree with you that Esther and Ruth are cool and we can learn from them, but the focus is totally disproportionate.

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    2. I'm with you, sister. i was single at the time I was involved with this Bible study which used the story of Esther to 'highlight the importance of taking time to be beautiful', and I was a bit confused. Now I'm reading Esther on my own terms :-)
      Looking forward to reading more of your blog posts in the future :-) God bless you!

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  13. EXACTLY THIS. Thank you for articulating this! Women should dig into more of the Bible than just the pink-aisle-in-the-bookstore-approved parts, and men should study and be edified the women of the faith and challenged to emulate their virtues just as much.

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  14. Thank you for making me laugh my head off!! And I mean that as a complement! Your writing style cracks me up, and I totally agree with your thoughts on lopsided women's ministry. All the floral, pastel stuff repels me too.

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  15. Seriously! We all face dragons. There's a quote attributed to G.K. Chesterton - “Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Both women and men need to learn that! One of my favorite fictional couples is actually Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese from Terminator for that reason. Sarah Connor really rises to the occasion when her world is threatened and fights alongside the male character - not so much as a "feminist" statement, but because it was necessary. As much as I hope I never have to face murderous time-traveling robot-human hybrids from the future, I want to be someone (and to be with someone!) who can protect and defend others and rise to the occasion when challenged.

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    1. So true! Every Christian has to fight against things- maybe the "dragons" are temptation, doubt, etc.

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  16. heh
    My wife and I were just talking this morning about her and dragon slaying. Dragons are awesome.

    Just for the record, I used to be a youth pastor, and I taught Esther and Ruth to all the kids; it never occurred to me that those bits were only for girls. I guess I was doing it all wrong. Especially since I taught all the kids about the disciples, too (a fairly indpeth study, too); I guess I failed in that by not kicking the girls out when we were doing those lessons.

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  17. Excellent post! I would WAY rather fight dragons than look at pretty flowers and pastel colors (I don't have anything against flowers, just if there's a choice it's dragons every time!)
    Something that I've noticed is that if I mention Jael, the woman who killed Sisera by driving a tent peg through his head, or the woman who killed Abimelech with a millstone, people have no idea what I'm talking about. Now, I'm obviously not advocating these women as literal role models so that all the girls start going around stabbing people in the head, but why is it that everyone knows about the violent escapades of Samson and David but not the bravery of Jael?
    And how come there's not more studies on Deborah, the only female judge of Israel, who is AWESOME? I have a women's study bible, but it tends to really push 1950's traditional gender roles. For instance, regarding Deborah's decision to ride to war with the army, the writing in the side bar highlights that she would have been just as happy staying home with the kids: the important thing was that she was following God. True, but why is that not discussed regarding the men in the Bible? I personally don't find it the least bit surprising that women in the Bible sometimes commit acts of violence in the name of God, the same as the men, but often when I bring up the stories of these women, people haven't read these parts or my study bible feels an extra explanation is required to justify her "strange" behavior.

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    1. Wow that's a good point about the violent things that women in the bible did, and how no one talks about them, even though we talk about Samson, David, etc. Or the idea that women doing that violent stuff in war is STRANGE and needs an explanation.

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  18. Try "Judith." I'm a dude and it gets my blood turning cold and my eyes popping out and my mouth praising God.


    Appreciate your post, though. It's a good point. I think feminist thinking has sold us the line that "if it's not about women, it's not for women," which is (in every case I can imagine) false.

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