Book Review: Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible

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No sooner had I discovered that I’d won a review copy of Vindicating the Vixens than I began to worry. What if it’s too scholarly and I’ve lost IQ points since school and I don’t understand the theological arguments? I haven’t read scholarly work since graduate school! What if it’s a slog to get through and I’m bored and it takes hours and hours and hours to read and process? Why, oh why, did I claim I’d looooove to read the book? I don’t even like non-fiction! (Not much. There are exceptions. My mind has a flair for the melodramatic.)

I shouldn’t have worried.

This book was a delight to read. It was scholarly, yes, but not anything like the stuffy-and-snooty scholarship in the literary criticism of my graduate school days.

First of all, let me say that this is not a book aimed only at women. Men, particularly men in church leadership, should read this book. You don’t have to agree with everything; the authors themselves don’t agree all the time. (More on that later.) But the ideas and information are worth considering.

The premise is simple: many of the women in the Bible have a bad girl reputation (“vixens”) and in many cases, those reputations are undeserved. We all read the Bible through a particular lens, one that combines traditional, often skewed, interpretations and our own contemporary sensibilities regarding these ancient events. But reading the text and considering it within the context of its times, both of the events and of the actual writing, shows that our views are often far from Biblical.

For example, there’s no textual evidence that Mary Magdalene was a former prostitute and Jesus’ lover (or wife), but many people believe this. Even many churchgoers and devout, Bible-loving Christians believe certain incorrect ideas because they’ve failed to consider the context and text. (For example, the belief that Deborah was a judge only because “a good man was hard to find.”) Some Biblical women are vilified because of their sexual activities. Others are ignored.

This anthology serves as a correction to this. But it also serves as a catalyst for personal change and re-examination of our theological assumptions about gender, the gospel, and the nature of God.

The authors are diverse: female and male, white and minority, various denominational backgrounds, all well-educated. (All the authors have a MA, PhD, or ThM degrees from respected seminaries.)

They are united by this:

  • a common desire to take the text seriously
  • a desire to portray the cultural context as accurately as possible
  • a passion for God and his word, which they strive to interpret the way he intends us to interpret it, as a revelation of his character.

They differ on the issue of women preaching yet always show respect for those who disagree with their conclusions.

They are also united in this conclusion: God is concerned for the outsider. The powerless. The marginalized, feared, stereotyped. These women’s stories vividly show how deeply God cares for those whom the world has deemed unimportant. To miss this aspect of the stories is to misunderstand God’s nature.

In the excellent introduction, Henry Rouse discusses hermeneutics and how to responsibly interpret Scripture. Each subsequent chapter discusses a particular woman.

Section 1: the women in Christ’s genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.

Section 2: women from Israel’s history: Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Deborah, Huldah, and Vashti.

Section 3: New Testament women: the woman at the well (the one with five husbands), Mary Magdalene, and a woman named Junia/Joanna, who may have been an apostle.

Some of the subject matter overlaps. (For example, the Sarah and Hagar chapters.) Because of the authors’ differing emphases, the assertions contrast and sometimes contradict. This might be disconcerting to some readers. One of the benefits, though, is that the different interpretations drive the reader back to the Bible. Rather than reading the book and passively accepting the conclusions without considering the logic and implications, I had to think harder. This is a book that demands interaction with the contents. (Much like the Bible does.) Time and again, I found myself discussing the ideas and interpretations with my husband and then in my own mind (when my husband wasn’t around).

All the authors stress the importance of the context. I was particularly touched and impressed by Carolyn Custis James’ handling of the patriarchal context in her chapter on Tamar. And Sarah Bowler’s discussion of Bathsheba was timely, considering how many women have become vocal about being sexually victimized. But it was also helpful in two ways.

  1. One, she points out that ancient understanding of rape emphasized physical force and violence, while moderns understand rape as also involving coercion and non-consent; thus, while the Bible does not explicitly call David’s sexual encounter with Bathsheba “rape” (given the writer’s cultural understanding of it), there’s textual evidence that his treatment of her would fit our modern ideas about rape. (See that chapter for details.)
  2. Two, she helps us to consider how we, as Christians–individually and corporately–treat the powerless and victimized, and how we can and must do better.

I’ve highlighted two chapters as helpful, but all of the chapters could be described this way.

The only times I felt confused were when the authors were discussing traditional views I was unfamiliar with. For example, I felt a little confused in the chapter about Mary as Timothy Ralston wrote about certain traditional ideas, such as her perpetual virginity or her bodily assumption. But I grew up in Reformed/Calvinistic circles and though I’d heard some references to these theological ideas, it was always given a disdainful treatment, almost a “can you believe these people are so stupid?!” attitude, and never treated with respect or with a desire to truly understand the origins of these concepts or the people who believe them. Hence my confusion. I slowed down and re-read those sections multiple times. (Is that a bad thing?) But my ignorance isn’t the author’s fault, nor is it a fault of the book.

This brings up something, though. I don’t think those who are Biblically illiterate would find the book helpful. The text assumes a baseline knowledge of Scripture, that the reader will know the gist of Israel’s history and Jesus’ ministry, and can find her/his way around the Bible. That’s the target demographic.

Note: The Christian reader who doesn’t know anything about the Bible (a new convert from an unchurched background, for example) could benefit from the book, though, if given guidance from mature Christian(s) and the tools to study the Bible, coupled with a fervent desire to spend time learning and praying.

There’s plenty of material for discussion in this book. Each chapter has a few questions at the end to serve as a springboard, but there’s much, much more that could be discussed in a group. It would be best if the group included women and men, as gender dynamics is discussed so much, and the group would benefit from having both male and female listening to God and each other.

Highly recommended.

I received a review copy from Kregel (through the editor, Sandra Glahn, whom I follow on Twitter) in exchange for an honest review.

Here’s my honest, Twitter-sized take: read this book. Seriously, I mean it. It’s available on Amazon. Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, ed. Sandra Glahn, Kregel Academic, December 2017. Contributing authors include Henry Rouse, Carolyn Custis James, Eva Bleeker, Marnie Legaspi, Sarah Bowler, Timothy Ralston, Glenn Kreider, Eugene Merrill, Tony Maalouf, Ron Pierce, Christa L. McKirland, Sharifa Stevens,  Lynn Cohick, Karla Zazueta, Amy Peeler. Great work, y’all.

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Correct . . . but wrong

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Recently, I’ve been re-reading the book of Job. I’ve read it before–that’s what happens when you attend Christians schools, church, and Sunday school for several decades–but I hadn’t picked it apart and thoroughly examined it. So now, instead of skimming through the rather tedious speeches of Job’s self-righteous friends, I’m stopping, pondering, and making connections between Job’s assertions and his friends’ arguments. And something struck me that I hadn’t taken note of before:

The friends’ theology is correct. Mostly. They recite some creeds and share ideas that, taken out of context, are beautiful. Uplifting, even. True. (For example, in chapter 20, Zophar speaks of the wicked’s future punishment and how they will pay for what they have done wrong; in the light of eternity and future justice from God, yes, that is true.)

Yet at the end of the book, God commands Job to make sacrifices for these three men’s sins. To the eldest man, he says, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7) Not sacrifices for Job, who argued with God, or his wife, who angrily told him to curse God and die. But the ones with the good theology . . . and the wrong application.

Here’s what stood out to me:

We can get our theology completely right but miss the most important thing: relationships. A relationship with God, yes, but also relationships with other people. The friends speak callously. They apply their good theology in the most unloving, uncompassionate ways to Job’s situation. They’d sat with him for seven days in silence; one wonders why they couldn’t have continued to stay silent and listen lovingly while Job grieved and argued with God. Here’s my theory:

Because humans like to correct other people.

We love being right and we think we’re always right.  

It’s not only our theology. Our ideas, our political alignments, our opinions on anything and everything from national security to proper push-up form to the stuffing versus dressing debate each Thanksgiving. Other people must agree with us!

All of our arguments can be completely correct: convincing, eloquent, and designed to drag, kick, slam, or carry the enemy to our side.  Or at least whack them upside the head for standing on the wrong side. For being the enemy. Our enemy.

Once we view the other person as an enemy, we forget that they are human, like us. 

In the past few months, I’ve tried to develop my reasoning and logic skills. I read a book by the late Robert Gula titled Nonsense. After several chapters on various types of nonsense (and why they are nonsensical), he writes about how to argue well. One of his final points was this: the other person is human. Treat them as such. 

I realized that I often forget that. I forget that all people are made in God’s image, not only the ones I find sympathetic.  While that image is a broken and shattered one, warped and distorted by evil, it is still there because God made that person.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the person is guiltless of wrongdoing and shouldn’t be brought to justice, whatever form that needs to be. It doesn’t mean that we can’t judge another’s actions as wrong. It doesn’t mean that we can’t stand with the victims or fight unjust systems wherever they are found. We can and should.

It does mean that we don’t treat that guilty person with contempt or scorn. Granted, this is very difficult to do. It’s much easier to ridicule and stereotype people we disagree with. To turn them into caricatures. To treat them as an enemy. To see them as less human than I am. I do it far too often.

This summer, I read lots of great novels and one horrible one. It will remain nameless, as there were multiple problems with the story. One of the worst was this: the villain was two-dimensional. He was your standard, run-of-the-mill serial killer. A stereotype. The kind of creep who’s easy to hate and view as inhuman.

We never got a deep view into his perspective, nor did we get a good explanation for his actions. It was all stereotypical explanations: he’s got this weird physical disfigurement (hypertrichosis, aka, werewolf syndrome), a bad childhood, a low IQ, and an evil (but wealthy) family. That didn’t explain his motivation. Not for this reader, anyway.

It was the easy way to create a villain: rely on stereotypes and the readers’ presumed preconceived ideas of how the “bad guys” act and why.

Even as I write about the book, I’m rolling my eyes. Why, oh, why, I think, did a bestselling author resort to this? C’mon, couldn’t she have dug deeper into her antagonist’s internal state and seen him as something more than an object of ridicule and scorn?  

Yet isn’t that what I often do when I interact with others?

I see only the wrong-headed views or the external appearance or their words. I read their arguments and think how laughable they are. Sometimes the arguments are truly laughable.

It would be far better to ask deeper questions.

  • Why does that person hold that view?
  • What informed their position? Who are they listening to?
  • What life experiences have they had that made them think this way?
  • How can I disagree with them while still treating that person with respect, dignity, and kindness?
  • Even as I disagree, take a stand, or fight for justice, how can I respond to those in disagreement without contempt?
  • In this disagreement, how can I hold in tension these two principles: loving others who are wrong and upholding goodness?
  • How can I see this person as God sees them?

Deeper questions. Challenging questions. Ones that sometimes I hesitate to ask from fear of what might happen. But maybe that’s exactly why I need to ask them: something good may happen. Like Job, we never know exactly what God’s doing or why or how or who or when. But he is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Twitter dilemma

fileIf you’re on social media, maybe you can relate to my experience.

I was on Twitter and ran across a series of tweets by someone I follow. Let’s call this person Q, and assume Q is female. Q is extreme in her views. I’ve never had any issues with her; sometimes I agree with her (and say so), sometimes not. (That seems to be the case for me more often than not; sometimes I don’t even agree with myself.)

She wrote a thread that started with one church-song-related observation. Then she took her original idea and extended that idea to an extreme that would’ve shocked the original songwriter. I thought her thread was faulty on several points.

One, the premise was faulty. It was taking the lyrics way, way too far into ideas that belied the songwriter’s intentions. The song is intended to praise God and remind the singers of God’s character, not be fodder for theological spats, political divisions, and rhetorical games.  But in criticizing the song lyrics, I thought she was dangerously close to misrepresenting God’s character.

Second, the thread’s logic wasn’t logical at all; it was full of straw men arguments, over-generalizations about groups of people, undefined evaluative terms, and non sequiturs. I’ve observed this tendency on her part multiple times since I followed her. Her arguments are emotionally-based, not grounded in logic, wisdom, and good sense. She’s young, though, and now that I’m (almost) 40, I’m inclined to give younger, more impetuous people the benefit of the doubt. (Or maybe it’s having a teenager and remembering all my teenage foolishness that accounts for this.)

Third, it lacked compassion; there appeared to be no understanding or consideration of any other viewpoint.  Instead, the argument appeared arrogant and close-minded. (It may not have been intended that way.) It lost sight of the fact that she was talking about other people, not only theology and politics. I rather wanted to cyber-wave my hands and yell, “Hey, you know you’re talking about your fellow Christians, right? You know, those people you’ll be spending eternity in heaven with?”

But I didn’t. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t. And that’s where I’m puzzled.

Do I reply? Should I have tried to gently correct some of the more extreme aspects of the argument?  Should I have tweeted something rather than nothing, hoping that I’d be able to get my point across in 140 characters?

Do I let it go? Keep scrolling, click likes on kitty photos and funny memes, ignore this thread entirely. I follow this person, I like this person, I don’t want to unfollow her, but I wouldn’t consider her a “close friend” on Twitter. Nor do I know much about her beyond the words of her tweets. Nor do I share many of her theological presuppositions. Nor was I in my best frame of mind for a theological discussion via tweets: it had been a rough week, I was depressed, and my brain was sloth-like as it moved from one thought to the next. (I probably should’ve stayed offline entirely.) Nor do I know if she was in the best frame of mind for disagreement; maybe she’d had a tough week, too, and felt crappy and ignored and invisible. But are those good enough reasons not to say anything?

I’m still wondering, several days later, and it’s niggling at my brain while I’m trying to work on my novel. So that’s why I’m blogging.

When do you speak up? When do you stay silent?

I’ve run into this type of situation multiple times recently, so this scenario could apply to at least two other incidents. It doesn’t have to be a theological disagreement. It could be about politics or parenting or the pantser-vs-plotter debate in writing circles. It doesn’t matter. Any topic you pick, someone can hold a strong, deeply felt, possibly illogical opinion about. And that person might share on Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat/Whatever-the-newest-media-outlet-is about it. And you might disagree.

But I don’t think it’s wise to always argue with that person, or, depending on the circumstances, even try to engage them in discussion. But in what circumstances would that be? I’m wondering what other people’s thoughts are and how you handle issues like this online.

Thoughts?

 

 

 

Coffee, a short story

file (7)While checking my links on my blog page, I realized that the links to both my short stories were broken. Both sites had shut down, and neither story was visible. I searched. And cried. And whined on Twitter. I didn’t know if I could resubmit the stories to different journals, as I couldn’t claim that they’d never been published and most journals like new material only, but I also couldn’t prove that the stories had ever been published.

Earlier this week, during a bout of I should give up writing angst, I cried again, this time on my husband’s shoulder.

He’s an engineer. He likes to fix things. (Those two facts are connected.) He told me to try the “wayback machine.” I’d never heard of it, but it’s a site that stores internet archives, even for sites that have shut down.

Yesterday, after many frustrating search attempts, I was able to locate both short stories and two non-fiction guest posts that had been lost. I thought I’d share the first story, “Coffee.” It was originally published in 2010, and I hope my fiction writing has improved in the past seven years. Still, I love my little story. I hope you enjoy it, too.

P.S.: If the link to the wayback machine doesn’t work, please let me know!

 

Coffee 

Nicole shook me awake. I rolled over, smelled coffee, and through the dim haze of waking, I heard her say, “Eli’s dead.” I looked at my roommate’s tears and the words sank down into me until I felt dead, too.

Dark two-lane road. A car accident. Another car crossed the double line. Two separate objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. A law of physics translated into reality: Miata versus SUV? The Miata lost.

After this, I drank more coffee than I served at Starbucks. (Click here to read more.)

Excuses, excuses

A few days ago, my older daughter was peering over my shoulder while I cleaned out my email inbox. She was curious about how many emails ended up in my trash folder. (At last count, it was 3600 and counting.) I was bemoaning how many emails I receive, many of which are blog posts from blogger friends, and how I couldn’t keep up with reading ALL of them. “Some people blog every day,” I told her. “Great material, but I could never do that.”

“How often do you blog?”

“Uhh . . . well” (cue sheepish look, tiny voice) “I haven’t blogged since January. Too busy.”

Cue the teenage look of disbelief, incredulity, and slight grimace that might or might not have been sympathy. She’s fourteen. She knows the rules of the internet even better than I do: to maintain an online presence, one must produce new content often.

Here I am, typing away, producing a new blog post. And apologizing for not blogging more often. I am, however, getting an astounding number of comments and email about the invisible in church post. (I’m also receiving an astounding number of spam on the post. Do spammers not have better things to do with their lives? Like, you know, get one. Or is it all computer generated now?)

I digress.

Here’s the rundown of what’s been happening:

The short story contest for Ruminate brought in 340+ submissions, with a huge number arriving in the last week. That was terrific. (I can’t wait for y’all to read the grand prize winner. I pegged it as a finalist the first time I read it.) But it also meant lots of time reading. I’m fairly certain I logged 40+ hours of work in that last week, between reading all of them, notifying my editor when submissions had author’s personal info in the body of the submission (a no-no when it’s a contest), and choosing my top 15 stories.

That meant that I had stopped working on my own novel. When I surfaced from contest-reading in early March, I realized that a huge part of my novel’s premise didn’t work. I mean, if it were an engine, it’d need a total overhaul, not a mere jump-start. Jumper cables weren’t going to do the job, y’all; this baby needed a tow truck to the auto mechanic shop, where some guy with grease-stained coveralls would pop the hood, mess around, and say, “Miz Droege, this here engine is gonna need a total overhaul, but me and Earl here” –slaps another big, grinning, grease-stained guy on the back– “we’ll fix it right up.” Earl chews his tobacco wad and nods and says, “Yep.” And I’d get a bill for a thousand bucks or whatever the going price is.

The biggest problem? The wrong antagonist. Changing that changed the entire story. I had ordered Donald Maass’s book Writing the Breakout Novel, and it was a godsend. His exercises helped me focus and deepen the characters and think about the story in different ways. (As a bonus, he uses many examples from current fiction. After seeking out some of the titles, I’ve found a few new favorite authors.)

The 5th draft was written in two months. I’ve spent the bulk of my writing time working on it, trying to finish before my daughters got out of school. My older daughter’s last day was Friday the 19th, I finished the draft on Saturday the 20th, and my younger daughter’s last day was yesterday. Goal accomplished.

There were other stressful things going on. Some were small (two concerts in one week, a complicated schedule). Others were large (a family emergency that took my husband out of town for a week).

I suppose all of this is my long-winded excuse for not blogging or having an online presence. My brain can handle only so much before it goes on strike and demands better treatment. I hope that I’ll be able to return to blogging on a more frequent basis.

Anne Shirley’s philosophy on mistakes

tomorrow has no mistakes in it yet

Yes, Anne, it is lovely to know. Even if today was difficult, and I made too many mistakes to count, tomorrow is a new day. Reading this passage always makes me smile.

The photo is one of mine. One evening, I saw a gorgeous sunset. I grabbed my camera, ran out barefoot, and snapped a dozen or so shots. I got a splinter in my foot from the wood on our back porch, but fortunately, my husband was able to extract it without too much pain. (Lesson learned: wear shoes when outside!) The photos were worth it, though.

The virtue of Father Christmas

tosantaornottosantaThe Christmas conundrum: To allow Santa or to not allow Santa, that is the question.

Of all the things that divide Christians, this has to be one of the most seasonal controversies. Along with Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas,  whether or not to sing Christmas carols in the worship services, etc., this one appears for one month of the year (possibly two, if you begin Christmas festivities before the Thanksgiving turkey is properly digested), disappears for eleven months, and then reappears, just as contentious as before.

Frankly, I’m ambivalent. I’m neither pro-Santa or anti-Santa. My parents believed that it would be too damaging if they lied to me and pretended Santa was real. So I never did the Santa photo or cookie plate on Christmas Eve or had presents under the tree labelled from Santa. Besides, I was terrified of the Santa in the mall. Go sit on a stranger’s lap and smile? Little Laura burst into tears at the thought. (This also applied to the Easter bunny, scary Halloween costumes, and handling Fourth of July sparklers. I was an overly sensitive child, okay?)

My husband and I haven’t had Santa with our daughters, either. Neither of us grew up with it, so we didn’t have cherished family traditions surrounding the guy in the red suit. Why bother?

Recently, I read a blog post on the subject. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read anything else on that blog, nor do I know the authors’ views on any other subject.) The author writes,

“Every part of Christmas, Team Jesus or Team Santa, can be grossly misused. There is no escape from the distracted desires of our heart, even on Christmas. It’s not as simple as choosing a side. In truth, Santa and Jesus are not at war. Rather, we are just a little confused. Our culture has lost the virtue of a fairy tale.” –Cindy Koch (emphasis mine)

That last line reminded me of a quote from G. K. Chesterton:

Fairytales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

Immediately, I thought of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. At the beginning of this fantasy (Lewis called it a fairy tale), the White Witch has captured Narnia under her spell. She makes it always winter and never Christmas. 

However, as the human children enter the world, another, more powerful person is at work: Aslan. The lion: wild but good, self-sacrificing and all-powerful, fierce but forgiving. When he is on the move, the White Witch’s spell begins to break. The snow melts. Frozen rivers thaw. New life springs from the ground.

And Christmas happens.

Three of the children meet Father Christmas, who arrives in his sleigh, Santa-style. But like John the Baptist foretelling the coming of Christ, he is also heralding the arrival of someone greater than himself.

“I’ve come at last,” said he. “She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.” 

Then he gives them gifts. They are tools, not toys, he cautions, and must be used wisely. A sword for Peter, who will soon be leading an army in battle. A quiver of arrows, bow, and horn for Susan, who will need to call for help. A bottle of healing cordial and a dagger for Lucy, who will care for the wounded.

(Clearly, Father Christmas hasn’t gotten the message that his presents are supposed to be the fun, plastic-entangled, batteries not included, difficult-to-wrap toys advertised in shop windows.)

Father Christmas isn’t at war with Aslan. These gifts aren’t for their own self-advancement or pleasure. They will be used to serve Aslan as he defeats the evil corrupting his beloved Narnia.

This fairy tale tells the readers

  • that good will overcome evil,
  • That Christmas isn’t about presents or merry-making but about the arrival of Aslan, the Jesus figure,
  • That the children will be given the tools they need to fight the White Witch,

and most importantly,

that it will take the self-sacrifice and resurrection of Aslan to totally defeat evil. A bloody, violent death. A glorious, unexpected resurrection. That’s what it will take to atone for wrong. At times the outcome seems uncertain and the children fear that the Witch has won and her evil will destroy Narnia for good.

At times, I, too, despair of the world around me: violence and division, hedonism and nihilism, abuse and ignorance. I feel ill-equipped to fight it. I wonder when God is going to step in and save the day.

And then I remember that he already did. 

That is a gift more glorious than anything Santa or another person can put under the Christmas tree.

Evil will be defeated.

Good will reign.

Let’s focus on that this holiday season.