Sometimes it takes a while to realize you are a feminist. Just ask Debora Spar

My New Testament students, silent with bewildered faces, stared at me as I asked them to identify the problem outlined in a book we are reading. It wasn’t that the book was written for an academic audience and thus too laden with technical phrases to make sense to students in a general education course. Instead, it was written for a popular audience: a reasonable and short introduction to the life of Jesus penned by a contemporary Bible scholar.

The challenge of the book is that it presents an idea that is radically different from what these students assume they know about Jesus.

So, we talked about how we often dismiss ideas out of hand because it seems easier to do that rather than doing the difficult work of engaging new ideas as possibilities and then examining them for their potential validity.

And, it is easy for us as teachers or adults with a fair degree of life experience (no; I’m refusing to say we are middle-aged) to underscore a lack of critical thinking as something indicative of first year college students, a hold-over from their educational training that rewarded recitation of someone else’s ideas rather than fostering creative and original thinking.

But, I don’t think our society as a whole values a lot of rigorous examination especially when it comes to ideas or beliefs or practices held by people with whom we disagree. And, like it or not, evangelicals are often on the brunt of lame and flimsy attacks made by people who seem to be remarkably unaware of the vast array of differences existing among evangelical groups in the United States today.

Consider, for example, a recent article appearing on Salon and before that on Alternet where writer Amanda Marcotte identified “10 Weirdest right-ring Christian Conspiracy Theories.” And while she makes valid observations about wacko claims like Planned Parenthood, according to the American Life League is trying to get kids “hooked” on sex or that President Obama is the anti-Christ looking for a way to implement Sharia law, a view apparently heralded by, she is sloppy in her identification of just who right-wing Christians are.

Marcotte’s thesis, of course, is that “Fundamentalist Christianity is crawling with conspiracy theories, urban legends, and just plain bizarre beliefs.” Fair enough.

But the large photo beneath her tag-line with a smirking Pat Robertson identifies him as an evangelical Christian leader, reinforcing the popular perception that Robertson, Driscoll, Dobson, are representative of all evangelical (or Christian, for that matter) groups.

Identifying the worst of any movement as a way to dismiss the entire group is a tactic not only used of religion but also of feminism. I lost count a long time ago of the number of students who told me they were not feminists because they didn’t feel the need to burn their bras or to challenge the reasons why they had never seen a woman preach, nor had a female youth leader, nor witnessed the men in her church work in the kitchen unless, of course, it was the annual pancake dinner.

And much like  progressive evangelicals who have been horribly misunderstood by the media and by the general American public forcing many to forgo the label in hopes of moving past false identification, many feminists have given up on the term feminism, thinking perhaps it is better to simply adopt a different term, one not so riddled with misdirected baggage.

In the midst of this continuing conundrum over feminism, I am glad to see a new book emerge to carry on the dialogue. Debora L. Spar, President of Barnard College, argues that while in her early years she never thought of herself as a feminist, she had a life-changing epiphany (recall the “click” moment) that “having it all” was not a lot of fun and was a lot of work. But, rather than accept this all-or-nothing appraisal that many want us to believe about feminism, Spar decided to immerse herself in feminist texts where she learned what she had imagined to be true about the movement was, in fact, false.

Maybe Spar’s work in Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection will be a teaching tool, not only for those who want to dismiss feminism out of hand, but also as an example of someone who decided an idea she had thought had no place in her life, turned out to be a transformative force in it, once she embraced the possibility of seeing things from a new perspective.