roles

Telling the Forbidden Truth

THE WOMEN IN Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith aren’t just frank. They are courageous, clever, and wildly passionate.

This anthology, edited by Erin S. Lane and Enuma C. Okoro, asks 40 women under 40 to respond to the question, “What taboos remain in the church at the intersection of faith and gender?” The result is a collection of stories by women of faith (Baptist, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, and more) in a variety of roles (pastor, mother, writer, teacher, student, and more).

The women share times they have felt shamed, alienated, discouraged, or alone as women seeking a home in the church. From addressing domestic violence to lust to pregnancy to the role of a woman pastor’s body, the stories are raw in the way first-person narrative calls upon honesty and vulnerability to trump perfect prose or style.

Anthologies often stick to one structural extreme: Either they are rigid and theme-driven, or loose and nomadic. Talking Taboo follows the latter. Lane’s introduction promises no arc of narrative, no solid take-away message. The stories are here, she writes, because women are agreeing to “speak for ourselves.”

The prompt “taboo” itself calls for a loose interpretation, for what is defined as taboo ultimately depends on both the writer’s and the reader’s cultural references and relation to faith. One reader may find Amy Julia Becker’s struggle to understand headship within marriage familiar, but Patience Perry’s call for faith-based menstruation rites shocking. Another reader may affirm Kate Ott’s understanding of sexual pleasure as divine, yet wonder why Amy Frykholm feels more empowered when she conceals her body behind a monk’s cloak.

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The Sounds of Silencing—And Speaking Out

Photo illustration by Ken Davis

When furloughed Peace Corps worker Angela Kissel showed up to support Sojourners’ Faithful Filibuster on Capitol Hill in September, she was surprised to be handed a Bible and invited to read from the podium some of the more than 2,000 biblical verses related to poverty and justice. —The Editors

READING SCRIPTURE outside the Capitol may not seem like a momentous occasion, but for me it was divine. You see, the day before, a well-intentioned pastor told me my place in the church was limited to specific roles because I’m a female. He told me it was against scripture for any female to preach, that roles for leadership are clearly only for men, the “father” figures of the church.

In response, I listed every female prophet and leader. I went through the patriarchal lens in which parts of the Bible are written due to culture and general misogynistic norms of the time. I noted the hypocrisy of highlighting some scriptures while blatantly overlooking others when it doesn’t fit the current agenda. And lastly, I walked through Jesus’ ministry and discussed how he went against cultural norms to illustrate the equality of women to the extent of choosing a woman to tell the world the full story of the gospel.

After an exhausting 65 minutes, we agreed to disagree. We prayed and ended the conversation. I walked away drained and slightly defeated. I wondered why God had put something on my heart and empowered me to speak up, when God knew I’d lose the battle. I also started to question myself and wondered if I should just stop fighting.

But then, not even 24 hours later, God used something so much bigger than me to affirm not only that this passion came from God, but also that shutting up and letting agendas get in front of the Creator was not an option.

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Mother Jesus

“HAVE YOU BEEN born again?” The image of a second birth to illustrate conversion is often used by fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians. Yet in my experience such folks also tend to resist thinking of God as other than male. How can they overlook this very maternal activity of God’s Spirit?

Even Nicodemus gets it, at least at the physical level. In John 3, this high-ranking Jewish leader privately approaches Jesus to ask him where his charism comes from. In most familiar translations of the New Testament (such as King James and NIV), Jesus tells Nicodemus that he would understand if he were “born again” (3:3). But the Greek word anōthen is deliberately ambiguous. Jesus’ intended meaning is “born from above” (NRSV). “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit,” says Jesus in verse 6. The Holy One is our birthing mother.

When the literal-minded Nicodemus asks how a person can go back into his mother’s womb and be born again, we cannot be sure (in 3:9-10) whether Jesus gently chides or sarcastically puts him down: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

Sadly, many “teachers” throughout Christian history have not understood these things. It is now 50 years since Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique opened the floodgates of second-wave feminist cultural analysis, thus preparing the ground for biblical scholars and theologians such as Letty Russell, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and many more. Some of us began to see that orthodox, “objective” methods of interpretation were instead often subjectively male-oriented. We began to ask, “Where is the feminine in our sacred texts? Were women there?”

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