When the book “Jesus Feminist” was released, Sarah Bessey and her husband Brian visited Southern California for a launch party and private reception and reading for The Junia Project. Today Maria Cowell shares an interview she had with Sarah during that visit.
In the short time since its release, Sarah Bessey’s little yellow book with the provocative title, “Jesus Feminist,” has started a lively discussion among evangelicals, some praising it as a unique contribution in the gender debate, and others dismissing it as “nothing new under the sun.”
The popular Canadian blogger and mother of three didn’t set out to write the definitive treatise on gender equality or to put a “Christianese spin on feminism,” yet her “invitation to revisit the Bible’s view of women” has both egalitarians and complementarians talking about what it means to be a Christian and an advocate for women.
Weaving her own story of faith lost and recaptured with the global story of women’s issues, Bessey reveals how she became a feminist because of Jesus, her reflections on how theology is liberating for women, and how feminism doesn’t have to be angry or dismissive of men.
Since then she has continued her busy life of writing, blogging, and mothering her three “tinies.” Here are some thoughts Sarah shared during her visit to Southern California about her little yellow book and the discussion it has generated.
The word, “feminist” has a lot of negative associations for evangelicals. How do you reclaim it for the church?
“I understand why it is a bit of a powder keg, but it wasn’t a reclaiming as much as a figuring out how to live that out. One of the things that I try to identify throughout the book is the actual baseline of feminism. It isn’t matriarchy. It is full equality across the board. Christian women were a huge part of that first wave of feminism. They became involved in feminism because they were passionate about the temperance movement or the suffragette movement. They were passionate because they were following Jesus. They were identifying things in society they knew weren’t just. It was part of our legacy and worthwhile to reclaim.”
Your definition of feminism – women are people, too – is fairly broad. By that definition complementarians would be feminists too, so is there more of a nuance?
“Feminism is not simply about the hot button issues in American evangelical churches – should women preach or not. It is more about the global story of women – maternal health, education for girls, the status of women in the world today. All these major social issues of our time, clean water, human trafficking or even eating disorders track back to our theology of women. The tag line on the book -the radical notion that women are people, too- is definitely more hyperbolic, but it establishes a baseline.”
You call your writing narrative theology, which some have critiqued as elevation of experience over hermeneutics. Are story and theology diametrically opposed?
“No. I call it narrative theology because it is basically the style of how I write as opposed to any systematic thought. Story matters, but there is a danger in a single story if I look at my life and say this is normative because my experience proves it. Our stories matter. We can find God in the midst of our stories. They influence how we think of our theology. It is foolish to think anybody approaches their theology or their discipleship objectively. We are always influenced by our context, history, the forces occurring around us, our politics.”
How did your faith background influence your writing?
“I grew up in Western Canada and my parents became Christians when I was seven and it turned our lives upside down. We ended up going to small, organic churches. Now you would call them missional, but at the time it was all we knew. The reason women were so welcomed and affirmed, whether it was in music, prophetic ministries or teaching, is we needed them. Sometimes the conversation of what women can or can’t do is a conversation of privilege when you have this gigantic pool of people to choose from. But we didn’t have that pool. We didn’t know these conversations were happening in the broader world of Christendom. We had no idea we were part of a charismatic revival of the Jesus People. I moved through my entire life, up until my twenties, never really knowing there were a lot of differences.”
You used to be angry when discussing women’s issues, but now your tone is warm and gracious. How did that change?
“I battled cynicism more than anger. What does church mean? What do these things have to do with my life? Am I just playing out a nice little Jesus club? It was the recapturing of hope that rose up for me when I was in this period of anger, bitterness and cynicism. I met people who just loved Jesus. I met men and women without book deals or teaching tapes just ministering with such wholeness and goodness. They had this hope and seemed to live in this overflow of the fruits of the Spirit. That helped me recapture a bit of what the Gospel actually is. My faith grew by walking alongside and learning from them.”
You clearly state you aren’t writing an academic position paper and you don’t believe that proof-texting sways either side, so what do you hope “Jesus Feminist” accomplishes?
“I don’t see myself as a preacher or a teacher. I see myself more as a writer and an artist. That is the privilege you get to have as an artist, you get to come at it slant. You don’t have to sit down and have the proof text argument for systematic theology. That isn’t really my calling. There are others who have done that far better than me. I wanted to make space for the debate and discussion. I wanted to give a glimpse of what I felt life was like on the other side after those questions have been answered. It was the then-what of the conversation that really captivated me. If I really believe God is going to rescue and restore humanity, not just women, but men too, then what does that mean in my marriage, my church, my community?”
What do you say to a woman who is happy as a homemaker and doesn’t want to champion social justice issues or preach? Does this book speak to her or is she out of the conversation?
“I hope she is in the conversation because that is my life as a stay-at-home mum with three kids! That is one of those false binaries we embrace: you are either 100 percent engaged outside your home or you are a homemaker. A lot of times in evangelicalism we have a bit of a hero complex. We tend to think that if it is not big and sexy and world changing by Tuesday afternoon it’s probably not good enough for God. We end up spending a lot of time wondering if we are living to our full potential. Surely God would want me preaching to thousands of people on a week night, but the truth is we are not all called to be Christine Caine. There is a need for each one of us. Whether we are doing something that the world considers incredibly successful or we are simply being faithful in the ways God has called us and placed us right now, we matter.”
Can a Christian embrace both egalitarianism and complementarianism or does that fall short of feminism?
“The truth is that everyone is on a bit of a journey. There is a lot of room for diversity and we are all learning from each other. Again, our language and the way we tend to think have binaries. Either you are 100 percent in this camp or that camp. I’ve had people say they agree 100 percent with what I have written, but they cannot call themselves a feminist because of the negative associations. That doesn’t bother me because I don’t care about labels. My thought is there is always a new way moving forward that is messier than our tidy categories and labels.”
What is the new way?
“I would like to live in a post-gender debate world where women can walk in wholeness and freedom. I would love to see the dismantling of patriarchal culture and rape culture. That is what we see when we get a glimpse of the Kingdom of God: men and women working together, co-creating with God.”
Editor’s Note: Purchase Jesus Feminist here.
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