The Ain't I a Woman blog examines the many ways Christian culture lets women know exactly who they should be. We deconstruct those messages that we find troubling--and, in the process, construct a different message: one that allows Christian women to be all that God intended.

Getting Inked, Middle Age, and Surviving Crises

I got a tattoo a few weeks ago to celebrate my mid-life crisis.

Okay, that’s not exactly true. My crisis has been in full swing for awhile now, and the tattoo was—at least ostensibly—a way to celebrate my amazing sister and the wonderful friendship we share. (And to experience a little pain together, though she told me it wasn’t going to hurt. Pshhh: It did hurt. A lot.)

The tattoo was a Reiki symbol for friendship, and is supposed to symbolize the essence of God we see in each other, and in ourselves. It also has a “S” swirled into it, which we decided denoted “sister” and “Springer,” our maiden name.

tattoosHaving a little bit of ink makes me feel somewhat bad-assed, I won’t lie. I told a few close friends that I will need to find new, inventive ways to show my tattoo off in class, so my students can see me for the hip, relevant professor I’m purporting to be. Will it seem too odd if I teach with my leg up on a desk, so everyone can view my tat?

Anyway, I convinced my husband that getting a tattoo with my sister was part of my middle-aged crisis, and probably better (Cheaper? More modest?) than buying a new sports car or splurging on surgical enhancements, the stereotypic symbols of middle-aged crises that often make us snigger at the fools who are struggling so mightily with half their lives behind them.

When I was younger—like, in my 30s—I assumed this middle age crisis thing would never catch me, that it was media-manufactured or, in the least, the provenance of vain people who couldn’t stand getting older.

Boy, was I wrong, something I discovered a few years after turning 40. And, in conversations I’ve been having with my same-aged peers of late, it seems we are all grappling with similar core concerns, no matter how we’ve spent the first part of our grown-up lives, either well entrenched in a career we loved; or staying uneasily in a job because it provided steady income; or being home with children, who are now growing up.

Our life crises look something like this: We wonder if we are doing exactly what God wishes for us, if we’ve chosen the best vocations. We wonder if we’ve made the best choices for our families—and for ourselves. We wonder if we are making a difference in our worlds. We wonder how we are supposed to spend the next part of our lives.

And also, we are beginning to see the natural entropy that accompanies being human. That damn unwanted belly fat is one thing, but we also experiencing—or witnessing—peers going through serious medical issues. We are witnessing our parents getting older, less the capable adults than they once were, when they made our teenaged lives miserable. Those people who served as mentors are also aging and dying, making us wonder who will we look up to for the next 50 years. Who will serve as our guides, our wise teachers? Will we be forced to navigate life on our own?

No wonder so many of my middle-aged friends feel in acute crisis. Because on top of all of this, we are told by the media (of course) but also by our church communities that being middle aged means we are no longer as relevant. Think about how many articles have been published in recent years, wringing hands about those millennials who are leaving the church, or how churches can appeal to millennials, or how millennials need something more than what the church offers, because they think more deeply about scripture, long for social justice ministries, have rejected the creeds and songs that older folks must like. For middle-aged women in the church, the news is even worse: according to most Titus 2 ministries, the best opportunity we have is to mentor younger women in the domestic arts, our own vocational aspirations now a thing of the past.

Turns out, being middle aged can make one despair completely, to sink into darkness, turn to addictive substances, or choose to abandon a family or career in quest of something better, a chimera promising happiness if only things were different. I know plenty of people who have taken these paths. Suddenly, just getting a little tattoo seems a fairly benign response to turning 47.

Benign, but also symbolic. At least for me, and not because I want to prove myself to still be bad-assed, still hip and relevant.

The symbol my sister and I chose suggests we see the essence of God in each other, and in ourselves, that we recognize and embrace what is holy in each other. And not only in each other, but in the people around us who reflect God to us each day. This has been the most pleasant surprise of my middle-aged life, that—now more than ever—I see clearly the ways God works through the people around me, a community of people willing to reflect the essence of God to me and to others.

If I need a touchstone, a mentor to guide me, I need only look to the folks around, peers my age whose pretenses have been burned away by youth, failure, grief, success and disappointment. More significantly, while these folks still believe deeply in Jesus, they’ve also relinquished the clichéd bullshit that sometimes counts for conversation in religious communities.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still stuck in the middle-aged trenches with plenty of others, feeling their crises. And in moments of clarity, I’m still grateful that I have a chance to be middle aged, knowing this is in itself a gift, one that plenty of others never have opportunity to experience.

But to be honest, I’m looking forward to 50. Oprah says life gets immeasurably better when a woman turns 50, and Oprah is always right, you know. Until then, I’ll keeping seeking the essence of God in those around me, all the while feeling a little bit edgy and relevant with my tiny tattoo.

A Biblical Response to SCOTUS

Along with everyone else I have closely followed my facebook feed this Friday in the wake of the SCOTUS decision on marriage equality. Wanting to fully experience this historical moment, I’ve simultaneously watched cable news while reading how my facebook friends responded to today’s ruling.

While many celebrated the news I noticed one who posted a link to Christianity Today where a group of Christian conservatives had already penned a rebuttal, signing their names as if their gravitas among evangelicals and fundamentalists would somehow stem the tide of social momentum.

There is no doubt about it: the ruling in favor of marriage equality will be fodder for an increased backlash among this group of Christians who claims to be marginalized, trounced beneath the cultural wars as America stampedes into the abyss.

I find it interesting, however, that this alliance of Christians—pastors, university leaders, popular writers—speaks so dishonestly about the Bible. They say the Bible “clearly teaches the enduring truth that marriage consists of one man and one woman.” Arguing this truth is non-negotiable, the signers urge evangelicals to remain steadfast to this belief while resisting an accommodation to culture.

Those familiar with the Bible—people who know it doesn’t speak with one voice and in one time and place—realize the Bible makes no such claims. Abraham, the great patriarch himself, had multiple wives as did others including King David, the so-called man after God’s own heart.

Instead of deepening this cultural dividing line by establishing their “declaration” of rightness, wouldn’t it be more biblical—and thus more godly—if in lieu of making such simplistic claims, arming people for epic social wars, these leaders decided to take the Bible seriously? What if, for example, Christians sought to practice the simple concept of loving one’s neighbor? How might that decision change the conversation post SCOTUS?

In timely coincidence, I happen to be reading Is the Homosexual my Neighbor: A Positive Christian Response by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. First published in 1978, they cogently argued for Christians to not only understand homosexuality more fully, but also to be more biblically literate, especially with passages that have been used to malign and discount people who are homosexual. As I read what they wrote almost forty years ago, I’m struck by how little has changed at least among the most vocal evangelical leaders (although this is changing for most younger people).

I’ve been reminded, too, by Scanzoni and Mollenkott of the importance of historical context and how disregarding it enables people to misinterpret the Bible (usually to support an already formed perspective). For example, the often quoted narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah is used to condemn homosexuality even though one of the well-accepted approaches to biblical interpretation requires studying how the Bible explains or illumines itself. In this case, there is no mention of homosexuality as the sin condemning Sodom and Gomorrah, but rather their inhospitable actions: greed, pride, excess, lack of care for the poor. When Jesus speaks of Sodom, it is not homosexuality that he addressed but the lack of hospitality.

So, what would it look like for Christians concerned with biblical morality to respond to the SCOTUS decision differently?

It would begin with hospitality rather than arrogance and ignorance. Placing one’s morality or theology at the center of a response is a self-centered act. It is saying that one’s own position is more important than that of one’s neighbor. Such actions are never reflected in Jesus’ own life as recounted in the gospels. The good news was that he welcomed all people, not placing them in categories or treating them differently depending upon who they were. Jesus’ ethic illustrated that loving one’s neighbor was more important than fulfilling the religious law, that relationship trumped righteousness every time.

Instead of signing statements of beliefs and declarations of certainty, I would hope Christian leaders and people of faith would reach out in affirmations of love, making their own commitments to learn to practice hospitality, the true biblical message.

The Duggar Debacle

Duggars

At the grave risk of Duggar fatique—I know; I have it too—there is one additional clue that needs to be addressed. No; I’m not referring to the debate over how the sealed juvenile record became unsealed and now spread all over the known world; nor am I thinking about the resignation of Josh from the FRC (Family Research Council); nor the upcoming interview of two Duggar sisters (Jill and Jessa) desiring, from the Fox promo, to set the record straight about their brother and the extent to which he sexually violated them several years ago.

Nor am I concerned to make clear the relationship between the Duggars and the now defunct Vision Forum where Doug Philips once reigned until his sexual escapades became known nor that of Bill Gothard’s and his empire that also faced demise when he was found his own sexual promiscuity problem (do you notice a recurring theme?).

What I want to point out for consideration is the culture created not only by the Duggars but also by many evangelical and fundamentalist groups. This culture is not “cute” or “traditionally wholesome” as proponents of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting may want us to believe. I suppose the reality show became such a hit because it strikes a chord with a more bucolic time, a simpler one, where people had time for mid-day picnics and shopping trips and family-centered activities, like roasting marshmallows over an open fire at the day’s end. The Duggars present a life that seems so easy, even as it is complicated by 19 kids. And, who, after all, doesn’t dream for a time when the complexities we face on an hourly basis weren’t so darn…well…complicated?

But, if we will take the time to peel back the layers that compose the life-style so well-presented by TLC’s hit show, we’ll see that the Duggars present a culture we would do well to reconsider.

Shaped by the idea that women and men are different, yet equal (where have we heard that before?), the Duggars and families that endorse the Quiverful mentality, believe these differences mean that roles are to be followed and that these roles are determined by one’s biology. If you are born a woman, you are to serve men, to be obedient to the man designed to protect you (father, husband), and you are to support and honor him in every way. On the other hand, if you are born a man, you are God-ordained to be a protector and provider. You should lead and your wife and children will follow.

What makes these separate roles so powerful, however, is their connection to God. These roles are the specific ways in which God wants people to live. To violate them is to transgress God’s law; it is to reject God’s plan.

This culture of gender-delineated roles makes it impossible to have equal power distribution. Those in power—in control—will always be men. And this is unquestioned because this is how God intends for people to be organized.

It is no accident that many groups who subscribe to complementarian (separate roles) ideology, including the Duggar family, find themselves at some point facing the problem of abusive power. Those with less power when violated or manipulated or controlled, have no way of identifying it. To do so, is to question God’s plan. Victims will often distrust themselves, and feel guilty if they question how they are treated. It’s a world where the powerless remain so, even as they appear glad about it.

But the Duggar debacle has something to teach those of us who are not in Quiverful cultures, who are not in evangelical or fundamentalist faith groups.

Even in progressive or liberal-leaning faith communities, distribution of power is still unequal. Look around. Take stock of what you see. Look at pastors and leaders, at who has the corner office in the best building on campus, or who makes the decisions despite what others suggest. Even more, consider how little we value the divine feminine.

Are you regularly hearing metaphors and similes for God that are feminine? Do you have a female image of God that automatically springs to mind? Are you just as likely to hear God referred to as “She” as much as “He?” Do you routinely hear prayers to Mother God?

My assertion is this: as long as our images and language for God are masculine and male, our culture will continue to devalue women and their voices. Such devaluing leads—at some point—to abuse of power. Sometimes this abuse will manifest itself sexually; often it will occur in lots of other ways.

So, even if the Duggars represent a small slice of Christianity, their debacle is an opportunity for broader and deeper reflection on the extent to which we all cultivate or blithely accept a culture that shares with the Duggars a distrust of the feminine.

If Eve Only Knew: It’s Official!

You can preorder our book now here!

And you can see our book’s really cool cover here:

book cover

And if you’re interested, you can read about our publication process here:

Four years ago this June, Kendra and I sat poolside at a hotel in Indianapolis, dreaming up a project we might work on together. The day seemed quintessentially Midwest summer: cloudy and humid, with thunderstorms threatening; the landscape, flat save for the restaurant signs of Cracker Barrel and Bob Evans, added to the Midwest vibe.

We had just finished a weekend long meeting with the board of Christian Feminism Today and were feeling an exhausted energy I always experienced at the end of church camp: ready to change the world for Jesus (and feminism), but only after sleeping for 15 hours or 60.

Together we thought about the work we might do, as writers interested in helping the young women in our classes process the sometimes negative messages they receive from evangelical popular culture. Kendra and I decided to start a blog, hoping that in the process, we might gather research for a more ambitious project: a book.

One year into our blogging endeavor, we started writing book proposals; two years into our blogging endeavor, we submitted our proposal to several publishers. And about 18 months ago, we signed a contract with Chalice Press, a publisher that has been a dream to work with.

In the last 18 months, we’ve finished our manuscript, then cut 100 plus pages of what we’ve written. We edited and copy-edited, read page proofs and contemplated titles and book covers. We have silently cursed the errors that still somehow snuck through (or at least I silently cursed; I’m not sure about Kendra).

Finally, last week, Chalice Press sent us a photo of our book’s terrific cover, and told us they would start publicizing our forthcoming work, due out at the end of July. So now we can began celebrating. Celebrating, and also experiencing now-and-then anxiety about what people will think of our final project, one that pushes back against some of the well-entrenched mythologies about the Bible, evangelical culture, and God’s design for women and men.

Even though I tell my students never to end a written piece with the phrase “And from this experience I’ve learned . . .” I will say this: From this experience I’ve learned that collaborating with a gifted thinker like Kendra is in itself gift. I have learned a lot from her thoughtful consideration of the Bible, and from walking with her through this entire process.

Thanks to all of you who have encouraged us as we wrote, rewrote, and edited; and for those of you who have sharpened our thinking on a number of fronts. We are grateful for the communities who have helped us write this book.

(If any of you has access to Oprah—or Ellen, I’m not picky—please let us know. I’d be happy to appear on Super Soul Sunday to talk about Christian feminism or bust my moves on Ellen’s show to get our message out there. Those who have seen my dance know how awesome that might be. )

 

 

 

 

On Reunions: The Minneola Wildcats

This weekend I will be attending a reunion, not just for my high school class, but for the entire school. Despite the threat of bad weather, this event promises to be big because, in case you didn’t know, small towns are tops for knowing how to celebrate their communities.

MinneolaThis summer marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the first graduating class of Minneola High School. Minneola is a small town on the Kansas prairie where wind is in abundance and rain is in short supply (except, apparently, this weekend). Still, over the years (the town was founded in 1887), people of grit and patience and neighborly spirit have pooled their talents to maintain a vibrant community worth celebrating.

I can hardly wait to see what the weekend holds! There will be the ever-present parade, the one I remember being in every year until I graduated. My first trip down main street was ruined, however, when the lamb I was planning to lead (yes; I was going as Little Bo Peep) was unfortunately kicked by my dad’s horse while they were in the trailer on the way to town and it did not end well. Other years I opted for the safer alternative of pedaling my bicycle draped in crepe paper or riding along-side my sisters on our horses, each with our matching patriotic vests crocheted by my grandmother. In later years, there were floats to decorate and populate—representing the United Methodist Church (one of four churches in our town) or our high school class. And, sometimes it was necessary to do double-duty: ride the float through and then run back to join up with the high school band in order to play our fight song and the Star-Spangled Banner while stopped in front of the announcer who usually was posted outside of Schmidt’s Radio and TV.

My sister who still lives near Minneola recruited me one time a few years back to join her as a co-announcer of the parade. She’s good at that sort of thing and is still used to the small-town necessity of everyone being involved and in the spotlight. As an introvert who had been away from such community-centered activities, my stomach remained in knots for weeks after—a feeling I’ve started to have again as this reunion occupies more of my mind now that the academic year has ended.

There are so many things, I think, we contemplate upon returning to the place and people who shaped our young lives and it can be difficult to take it all in at once. I wonder, too, if coming from a small town adds something to the experience, both of living there once and returning to it later. There is really no other experience I can identify that carries with it the sense of transparency—everyone really does know everyone—and community (there is no way to survive without everyone pitching in) and the corresponding challenge of how to fit in, especially if you don’t.

As a young teen growing up in Minneola, I relished my home town, believing there was no place on earth that could compare. Maybe this is what everyone thinks of their environment, but I doubt it. From the basketball court where Mr. Hamilton coached us into a pretty darn good team to the choir and band rooms where Mr. Pfieffer and Ms. Harvey taught us to play and to sing just as well as the bigger schools down the road to the classrooms where Ms. Blanchard and Ms. Zipfeld taught us science and English, school was an expression of the town’s commitment to its youth. Friday nights the football stadium or basketball courts were packed; filled not just with parents but with friends and relatives. Churches took turns feeding us, not checking to see whether or not we belonged to them or to another church. The town paper even kept up with what we did on weekends, recording it for all to see the “Town Trifles” section of The Minneola Record.

But just as much as growing up in Minneola shaped me and my sense of place, living in other places since then has also formed me, changing me in fundamental ways. Since leaving the Kansas prairie I have seldom felt like I “fit” in the same kind of way. I’ve been more outsider than insider: a young woman studying religion, a field populated by men; a woman who chose not to have children despite the strong cultural assumptions promoting motherhood as the most legitimate path of life; a feminist among colleagues and students who are more comfortable living with sexism than questioning it.

Because of these changes, I imagine there will be several times throughout this reunion weekend when I will feel like an outsider, no longer at home in my hometown. At the same time, I imagine others will feel similarly: those who have moved away; those who live in Minneola now as adults but did not grow up in there; those whose experiences of life and loss have radically changed them.

At first glance it is easy to assume everything and everyone will be the same but once that fleeting idea is passed, we know that nothing stays the same. Indeed, it would be sad it that happened. We are meant to grow and to be stretched; to be challenged and to see the world from the perspectives of others. This is the beauty of being human: we have imaginations that enable us to envision reality in multiple hues reflecting the variety of light as it illumines all of us.

Despite what this reunion weekend holds for all of us, one thing is sure: Minneola is a place of hospitality. People will open their arms to all of us—those who have stayed and those who have scattered. The welcome signs will be on full display and the feeling of belonging to a small community will be palpable. We will celebrate not only our little town but also the bonds that, in the end, do not require uniformity but rather understanding.

I’ve come to realize, it isn’t that we are all the same; that living in Minneola means we are cut from the same cloth. No. We are different; remarkable diverse, especially in our collective experiences that range from staying in Kansas to living all over the world. What binds us—what binds all of us as humans—is not our sameness, but our desire for meaningful relationships.

When we are able to do this—to start with what connects us—then we can move forward, step-by-step to learn from our differences, seeking to understand the other more than to be understood. Desmond Tutu once said that the reason God created us in such infinite variety was so that we could learn to love each other. What better time to practice such connection than with the 100th graduating class of Minneola High School?

I can’t wait to see those of you who also plan to gather on the Western Kansas plains and to celebrate the Wildcats of Minneola!

On Marathons, Blogging, And Sucking it Up

Last week, I finished a marathon in Bend—a town that is apparently not at sea level, and that has a significant number of really big hills, elements I did not account for when I decided to run it. The timing of the marathon seemed fortuitous, though, as my book group was holding its annual retreat the same weekend, and in Bend. God wanted me to run that marathon, I thought.

Or wanted to punish me, turns out.

Oh, the first miles were easy enough. But about ½ way through, the race became more onerous than usual, and I began wondering why the heck I pay money for this experience. Am I a masochist? Does anyone really like this kind of voluntary suffering? What the hell is wrong with me?

Just when I almost gave up all hope, when I imagined exchanging running for a far more sedate activity, I saw a group of friends ahead, cheering me on with signs only a cynic who also teaches writing could appreciate.

Signs like this:

yourloved

And this:

run for jesus

 

Even though I’d run plenty of marathons, no one had ever made me a sign. Sometimes, I’ve acted as if other people’s signs were for me, too: that one that said “We love you Mommy” was clearly intended for me, even though my sons hadn’t written it; the one that said “almost there!” was a little bit silly, but meant for me as well.

Turns out, though, signs created uniquely for a runner are really cool, as is having one’s very own cheerleader.

Only on one other occasion has someone volunteered to run the last miles of a race with me, and I’m still grateful to Staci for those six miles. In Bend, there was my best running friend, emerging from the sign-holding crowd, ready to run beside me through the hardest part of the race. Which she did beautifully, mind you, providing the right balance of encouragement, humor, and silence I needed to persist.

When a nearly-naked runner jumped into the race at mile 20, my friend had some great double-entendres at the ready to keep me laughing; when a much-older woman buzzed by me at mile 23, my friend intuited my mood immediately, and told me to stop feeling sorry for myself (but in the nicest way possible). Everyone, I decided, needs a best running friend willing to also be a last-painful-miles partner.

And then it was over, my support team friends meeting me at the end, walking me to the car, buying me potato chips and diet coke, celebrating later that day with bacon and pancakes. (Maybe it’s clear now why I actually run marathons: the after-race bacchanal of All My Favorite Foods.)

So here’s my excuse for why the blog has been silent for so long:

In many ways, this semester has been my Bend marathon. The first few months started out well enough, but about half-way through, everything became a slog: I was teaching too many classes, involved on too many committees, and my kids had too many activities to keep straight.

Every now and then, I saw people holding up signs (mostly metaphorical) letting me know I could get through, cheering me on to the finish; most definitely, there were people who came alongside, offering the support I needed. This included many of my students, who often reminded me exactly why I love my job, even when the air is thin and the hills are interminable.

Our semester’s finish line came on Saturday, at our university’s graduation, the first held on the new football field. The weather was beautiful, the graduation seeming more festive than usual, though that might have just been the jumbotron, changing the environment just a little. I sat with the faculty, next to a friend I’ve had for over a quarter century, stretching back to when we were both students at George Fox University, running cross country and track together.

It seemed impossible to believe that 25 years had passed since we were students, needing our own cheerleaders to help through to our undergraduate finishes. During college, and in the 25 years since, I’ve had people who came alongside me—teachers, parents, friends, a spouse and kids—and who assisted me by essentially flashing this sign:

goMelanie

I’ve had moments of despair, in this semester and at other times, when I wondered What the Hell? and Why am I doing this? At those moments, I’m grateful that there’s always been folks at my right elbow, guiding me along, humoring me, cajoling me, telling me to stop feeling sorry for myself already (but in the nicest way possible).

So I’ve reached another semester’s finish line, and the bacon, potato chips, and a donut or two are waiting, as well as long afternoons reading in the sunshine, visits from far-away family, and maybe—just maybe—the chance to pick up writing this blog more regularly again, especially as the blog-inspired book we’ve written is published in late July.

I’m also signing up for my next marathon. At sea level, of course.

Why Can’t Women’s Retreats be so INTENSE?

My church’s women’s retreat is this weekend. I’ve never been, which I see as my problem and not the church’s retreat planners. Everyone who goes comes back happy, and I imagine I might, too, if I gave women’s retreats a chance. Given my discomfort with sharing space/meals/sleep/spiritual life with people I don’t know well, I’ve never even risked the thought of attending a women’s retreat.

Besides, my idea of retreat is more equivalent to personalized bacchanal: a big, soft bed all to myself; a few friends I know really well; copious amounts of sugar, in various forms; and hours and hours of reality TV.

Somehow, I don’t think the church would endorse a women’s retreat like that.

But then I saw news about a retreat I would probably really like (especially if I could have my own bed to crash on after each day’s end). The INTENSE retreat is coming up in a few weeks, and the whole event sounds perfect for me, except that 1) it’s in Texas and 2) it’s only for Alpha Males.

Yes, it says that right in the tagline for the INTENSE weekend: the focus of this year’s retreat is the Alpha Male. If that whole INTENSE title and “Alpha Male” tagline isn’t enough, the web splash page includes a big ole’ snarling wolf. Nothing says building Men of Christ than an animal ready to bite the face of anyone who stands in his way. Can I get an amen?

The entire INTENSE weekend promises to develop godly men by competing, communicating, and sharpening! Which is, I suppose, why jousting is on the schedule of events—those jousting sticks must be sharpened for the many competitions promised.

Other events sound like a lot of fun: football and basketball games, soccer, a warrior run, bull riding, boxing, and paintball. For those not inclined to athletic competition, there is also chess, dominos, ping pong, and chili cook-offs, but I cannot really imagine that INTENSE Alpha Men would be involved in such activities.

Would they?

And can every man at an Alpha Men conference be Alpha Men? Doesn’t a football field full of Alpha Men somehow undermine the very definition of an Alpha Man? Perhaps the men playing chess and dominos are not really Alpha Men. Maybe just alpha men.

Conference speakers are pastors at churches with names like PowerHouse and Big Country, which do well to highlight the vastness of Jesus, his strength and masculinity. Indeed, the pastor at PowerHouse believes ardently in the INTENSE Alpha Men conference because in his mind, manliness and Christ-likeness are synonymous.

If Jesus were around today, he’d be right in the scrum of a football game, cooking off his spicy chili and being first in line for the boxing ring. Wouldn’t he?

Given how much I like competition, playing basketball and soccer, and pretending I’m a cowgirl, I would no doubt prefer an Alpha Men conference to many women-oriented retreats which focus on scrapbooking and crafting (though I must be clear that this is not necessarily what my women’s church retreat does: I have not attended, because of my own stupid hang-ups).

Which suggests again the multitude of problems with these INTENSE experiences, designed as men-only, testosterone-fueled events or women-only retreats intended to focus on “what women are designed to do.” Not all men want to be Alpha Men; not all women find interest in building relationships through intimate fireside chats and making crafts. We have our own interests, and it would be nice to find some kind of spiritual retreat experience that played to our gifts, not our gender-designed roles.

This is why I always liked GFU faculty retreats, despite the boring discussions about assessment and flipped-classrooms. At least there, I could play volleyball during my free time while my male colleague, Ed, took off for antiquing with some of his GFU friends. We were free to pursue what interested us most, gender roles and God’s apparent “design” be damned.

Until churches can come up with retreats that acknowledge our unique giftedness and the ways God is reveal to us differently, I’ll stick with my idea of a retreat: a big bed all to myself, some close friends nearby, and some good reality TV. That fits best my idea of what it truly means to retreat, after all.

An Open Letter to Eerdmans

Dear Eerdmans (and other publishers too numerous to name):

I relish being an academic. I love the cyclical feel of an academic year: excitement and optimism in the Fall; the mid-year break in the dark Winter; the long Spring semester, extended due to Spring break and yet over in the blink of an eye.

One of the highlights, of course, is the spring commencement ceremony for the jubilant spirit of grads and their parents and also for the long lingering summer that beckons once the regalia are put away for another time.

Oh sure, lots of people think summers are spent playing and traveling and generally doing nothing productive. But my experience is that while summers offer a change of pace, they are also the time when I do the most reading and planning, strategizing about teaching and learning.

A critical component of this summer work entails a fair bit of precision in my reading materials, deciding which books recently published would be most beneficial to my teaching load for the upcoming year.

So, part of this yearly pattern involves the arrival of academic catalogues, the shopping spree that is uniquely academic. It’s the anticipation of a new vista, a topic unidentified before, a new perspective on an old idea.

It’s a little like lingering in your favorite bookstore, the arrival of publishers’ catalogues. In the pages of these booklets, the world of words opens up, inviting you, begging you, to buy its goods. What decent academic wouldn’t take this bait?

At least this is how I used to feel. And here, Eerdmans—and other publishers who know this reflects you, too—is where I hope you’ll hear what I have to say.

Maybe this has been a simple oversight on your part, but I have noticed that year after year mostly men are writing your books. I’m sure if you happened to take note of this, you’ve tried mightily to change it, encouraging women to write their academic tomes, too. When I was a newly minted Ph.D., I eagerly pored over these academic catalogues even as I was a little surprised they all seemed, well, boring. Maybe you know the feeling: I wanted to be interested, but no matter how hard I tried the novel or memoir sitting on my nightstand always won. It was hardly a battle.

But now that I am a little more seasoned (ok, older, middle-aged, even!) I realize the problem really isn’t that I lack the appropriate interest in all things academic; it is rather that the books you publish are asking different kinds of questions than ones I need to explore. It’s often as simple as the audience not fitting the writer. You publish books mostly written by men. Their questions and methodologies are legitimate, of course, but they aren’t the sum total of what is important. And this is what you miss by your masculine bias.

The most recent Eerdmans Spring 2015 catalogue features four female authors out of a total of forty-one books and one additional book that includes poems of Joy Davidman, a point of interest most certainly only because they were written to C.S. Lewis. In other words, without the presence of the famous man in her life, her work would not be of interest to Eerdmans.

This imbalance results in a more narrow scope of scholarship than you could otherwise circulate. There are more women than this writing good books; works of impeccable scholarship and contemporary interest (unless you want me to believe that for every ten men, there is only one woman who has anything important to contribute to the field of religious studies).

An image from graduate school has stayed in my mind and maybe it is useful here. There we were, my classmates, all male with the exception of two of us, sitting around the table in the basement of the religion building where it was dark and damp. Some might say an apt environment for Ph.D. students of religion.

The clamor for space played out once a week when we gathered in this seminar room. Students eager to earn their place, to assert their ideas, to defend their positions occurred during the course of three hours each Tuesday morning. As a woman and introvert, I felt my disadvantage acutely and therefore prepared more than most. I wrote down my questions and comments in advance, playing out in my mind how the discussions might go anticipating how and when I could speak. It seemed to me, despite my strategic preparation, I had to elbow my way to the table, fight my way, really, to the place where I could speak, where my words could share the space the men found so easy to occupy.

I imagine the current situation with academic publishers is little different. Academics from all parts of the globe and all areas of expertise clamor to the table of various publishers hoping their elbows are sharp enough that they can gain a chance to speak. The loudest voices are the ones who get heard, and most often, this tilts decidedly toward men. And so, year after year, the dearth of works by women means that our disciplines are not shaped and influenced more completely by other perspectives, by those whose ideas themselves have been changed because of their struggle to be heard.

What if every publisher had a goal of creating an entire academic catalogue composed entirely of works written by women? Such a proposal is preposterous if only because it would immediately be tagged as such and directed to an all-female audience. Of course this is the current reality with a critical difference: men are the authors and no one thinks to suggest their writings are only for men.

Maybe it’s time for academic publishers to consider their role in shaping academic disciplines and more importantly in taking a stand for greater diversity, greater awareness, and greater celebration of all voices, even those who have to elbow their way to the table.

On the other hand, I can always recycle my copy of the latest academic catalog, hoping in another life or iteration it will be useful. In the meantime, I’ll pick up a book of a different genre knowing I can find voices of women there.