Meaningful Community as an Act of Female Imagination
Toxic Christian masculinity, Women Talking and the quiet resistance of rural wreath building.
I want to squeeze myself into this role assigned to me—doting wife, good mother, worshipper of the male voice, the male god, the muscular Jesus, that requires I only work in the children’s ministry, or go to women’s Bible studies.
And what does that matter anyway? I don’t want to be a pastor, do I? Why can’t I just fit in? Why can’t I just make it work?
- Lyz Lenz, God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America
After a banal interaction with a man at a store a few weeks ago I found myself crying in my car. The experience had nothing to do with the man. He was kind and affable. It was the observation I had of myself in the moment. I wanted this stranger’s approval. I wanted this man’s approval.
I got in my car, my chest tight and a litany of moments from my life, some similarly benign and some outright abusive, ran through my mind. Cue tears.
I’m sure if we sat down you’d have similar stories. I’m not special. But I am a woman and like all women, have been subject to a culture where we’ve been told to sit down and be quiet. And where we’ve been asked to do far worse. As I drove home in my car, tears streaming down my face not really understanding why I was crying in the first place, a voice said, “This is why it’s so hard to step into church. It’s an inherently male space.”
Woah. I did not expect that, and while that shocked me, somehow it felt true.
When I got home that day after wiping my tears I pulled down Kristin Kobes Du Mez’ book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, which had been sitting on my shelf for over a year. I haven’t read a book that fast since the Hunger Games trilogy.
This book, friends, rocked me. It gave me answers around the gaslighting. There are good reasons I cried in that moment. Misogyny and toxic masculinity have been baked into the fabric of American Evangelicalism. And while I was raised maybe not in the most extreme halls of this vanguard I was at least raised in what Du Mez calls the “northern establishment evangelicals—the Wheaton and Christianity Today types.”
Du Mez traces the history of Evangelicalism’s love affair with male dominance and cowboy culture back to the early 1900’s. She gives, in compelling and somewhat shocking detail, the history of militant Christian masculinity that culminates in Donald Trump’s election. She says that Evangelicals hadn’t betrayed their values. They had been building to this for over a century. And it was so much more about John Wayne than it ever was about Jesus.
In most of the church spaces that I've been in my life, church has been done to me. As a child I sat in a dusty rose cushioned pew, while a man spoke for an inordinate amount of time about something I couldn't even pretend to understand. Is this what happens when you're older, you talk about things that don't make sense? Was I somehow broken because I didn't understand these words.. dispensationalism, atonement, election..
As we left church there was always talk of how maybe my brother would become a pastor. Clearly God had saved him as a baby during child birth and as a young boy from Legionaire's Disease. Surely God had something wonderful planned for him. Like a life well-lived wasn't enough to elicit saving. (Side note: God did have something wonderful for my brother, but it wasn’t being a pastor.)
But there was never any talk of my sister or me becoming pastors. Don’t get me wrong, we grew up knowing we could do anything. I never once was taught or told that I had to be a mom or a wife, or anything that resembled a classic American housewife. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't work or that I would need someone to provide for me. But, I was told that the only thing I couldn't be was a pastor. I couldn't even "teach" men. Even at the age of 50 when I became a spiritual director, my dad not so jokingly said to me, “just don't let anyone give you a pulpit.”
I made the observation once in a Bible Interpretation class that the Southern Baptist convention was making a point of including women and BIPOC scholars every time they gathered for sessions around interpretation. A young man studying for the priesthood said to me, "Don't you think it's more important that the people in those sessions read Greek and Hebrew?" I looked back at him and asked, "Don't you think there are women and people of color who read Greek and Hebrew?" The obvious eluded him.
On the other side, I got into an argument once with a hip millennial author on Instagram who was disparaging Glennon Doyle and her ilk for hocking "spiritual wisdom" on social media. This was cheap, she claimed, and there were plenty of highly educated women with legitimate platforms that we should be listening to instead.
I shot back, “You know women have been left out of spaces to share wisdom for so long, if people have found themselves in these outsider spaces of social media, what is it to you?”
She challenged me. “Oh come on, name me one place where women don't have a place to speak their minds,” says the young New York liberal living in her bubble.
“Uhh.. there's lot's,” I say, “but let's just start with the Catholic church.”
I think she was embarrassed. She mea culpa’d and bowed out. Again, the obvious can be so elusive.
This lent I've been pelted with the obvious. Smashed over the head with it. Over and over in these last days I've been confronted by the history of misogyny in the systems that align themselves with Christianity. And while these things have been in the forefront of my mind for a long time, I can feel them in my body now. I understand why so many of my reactions around the church, around men in the church, around worship spaces are irrational and feel out of my control.
And then I watched Women Talking.
And then I rewatched it. And watched it again.
Sarah Polley’s movie based on the book by Miriam Toews is based on the true story of a group of Mennonite women who for years had been attacked during the night by “demons” but in reality had been drugged and assaulted by a group of men in their community. As the men are out in the town trying to raise money to bail out the discovered rapists, the women gather and talk, trying to decide whether they should stay and fight their oppressors or leave to start anew with their children.
“It was doomsday and a call to prayer. It was both,” says the young narrator.
Polley starts the film with a text layover saying, “This is an act of female imagination.” And you wonder which, the story or the film? And the answer is yes. I just want to leave some of the lines from the film here for you to read and chew on.
“Where I come from, where your mother comes from, we didn't talk about our bodies. So when something like this happened there was no language for it and without language for it, there was a gaping silence, and in that gaping silence was the real horror.”
“We do know that the conditions have been created by men and that these attacks have been made possible because of the circumstances of the colony. And those circumstances have been created and ordained by the men.”
“Because they needed to have those they'd have power over. And those people are us.”
“We could ask the men to leave?”
“None of us have ever asked the men for anything. Not a single thing. Not even for the salt to be passed, not even for a penny, or a moment alone. Or to take the washing in, or to open a curtain, or to go easy on the small yearlings. Or to put a hand on the small of my back while I try again for the 12th or 13th time to push a baby out of my body. Isn't it interesting that the one and only request we women would have of the men would be for them to leave?”
(They all laugh)
“Sometimes I think people laugh as hard as they'd like to cry.”
“We are wasting our time by passing this burden, this sack of stones, from one to the next, by pushing our pain away. Let's absorb into ourselves. Let's inhale it. Let's digest it. Let's process it into fuel.”
“I've also been thinking about what is good. Freedom is good, it's better than slavery. Forgiveness is good, it's better than revenge. And hope for the unknown is good, tis better than hatred of the familiar.”
“Leaving will give us the more far seeing perspective that we need to forgive which to love properly and keep the peace according to our faith. Therefore our leaving wouldn't be an act of cowardice or abandonment. It wouldn’t be because we were excommunicated or exiled . It would be a supreme act of faith. A step towards love and forgiveness. Leaving is how we demonstrate our faith. We are Leaving because our faith is stronger than the rules. Bigger than our life.”
“We have decided that we want. That we are entitled to three things. We want our children to be safe. We want to be steadfast in our faith. And we want to think.”
I have read the litany of the lines over and over since watching the movie. The beautiful part of the film is that in the moments of emotional climax, which happen about four times throughout the film, each is followed by a silence and then into that silence one of the elder women ground the others with either a hymn, a scripture or a prayer. Their faith has not made them weak. Their faith is what gives them the strength to leave. Their belief is true and real, unlike the demons that have been attacking them
Below I’m listing all the books and films I’ve watched so far this Lent that has kept me in this space where I’ve been talking to the women. I haven’t gone looking for them, they’ve just shown up and I’ve been grateful.
Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Women Talking, film by Sarah Polley based on the book by Miriam Toews
What the Constitution Means to Me a play written and performed by Heidi Schreck on Prime
She Said, a film with Carey Mulligan and Zoey Kazan directed by Maria Schrader
The Defiant Middle: How Women Claim Life’s In-Betweens to Remake the World by Kaya Oakes
God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America by Lyz Lenz
An Act of Female Imagination
I highly recommend the last two books as well as the authors’ substacks. Oakes talks about the middle spaces where women show up to bring change, sometimes with great energy and sometimes with quiet defiance. And Lenz writes literally about the middle spaces in America, the Midwest rural spaces. And it’s here I want to tell you a story about one of my clients who has given me permission to tell this story.
My client, we’ll call her Linda, is a pastor at a rural church in southern Illinois. She is the only female pastors for miles and leading a church that is the only open and affirming church for miles. This is a small farming community where people go to the churches not just that they were raised in, but church their grandparents were raised in, their children got married in, and their grandchildren will be baptized in.
Linda is the first female pastor at her church since it started in 1866, and she immediately began to turn heads. When the local pastors would plan a town-wide event, they would leave her out. She’d have to claim her own space in these gatherings. She’d have to stand up to men that didn’t believe she had a God-ordained place to sit at the table. She had to get mad.
But there have been beautiful things that have happened as a result of her having to speak out, claim space and in some instances shame some of these male pastors into giving her a seat at the table. She’s had to stand quick and strong and be just as quick and strong in letting go her resentments, a hard practice.
One day we were meeting and she told me that a few of the women in the town had told her either in the grocery story or at the retirement home where she preaches to the elderly on Friday mornings, that they would be real interested in coming to her church and hearing her teach. “Pastor I hear you’re really shaking things up,” they’d say. But then inevitably it would always end with, “but if my pastor found out I was going to your church….” or “My husband would never leave our church. It was his family’s church.”
She was frustrated. In our conversation she envisioned what it might be like to create a space for women that was safe to come to that wouldn’t upset other pastors or husbands. And no, it wasn’t an underground women’s collective of radical feminist teachings, thought I think she’d be into that. No, it was a holiday craft luncheon. It’s about as Midwestern church lady as you can get, and probably a few years ago I would’ve sat in judgement of such a space. But I’ve learned better. She’s taught me that these quiet spaces of safety for women can be radical spaces of resistance.
Picture these women sitting around a table making Christmas wreathes. They each have their coffee or lemonade in their paper cups in front of them and perhaps a napkin square with a lemon bar or a brownie. They’ve already eaten a lunch of strawberry salad, finger sandwiches and potato casserole. But now as they sit in the quiet and comfort of the fellowship hall where their attention is placed on a hot glue gun and ribbons, the conversation starts.
“So pastor, what’s non-binary?”
Linda doesn’t react or look up from her wreath, “Well, that’s a term someone uses when they don’t identify with being solely male or female.”
Someone else chimes in, “My nephew is non-binary. I need to call him ‘they’ but I keep forgetting.”
A few people look up from their wreathes as the woman who admits this holds her breath. They go back to their hot glue.
Then out of the silence another woman this one older who brought the jello salad, “My son is gay.” The women nod their heads like they understand and approve.
The conversation continues like this, hesitant but testing the waters for connection and understanding. It is a Holy and radical place for women to come and learn and say things they can’t say, perhaps, outside these walls. At least not for miles.
There are places like this all over our country where woman are making subversive spaces for listening and ministry and worship. Women have ALWAYS made these spaces, I’m sure. But as we stand in the shadow of the Trump years when our not-so-hidden past has come to glaringly obvious light, these spaces are needed more than ever. Wherever you are, how can you create space specifically for women to feel a sense of belonging, a sense of safety to talk freely, a sense of meaningful community?
I live in a rural farming community with many generations of families within the churches. You described life here perfectly. Misogyny is all around. I really liked the idea of just having a group setting for women. Then my thought went to the women being so afraid to cross the line. The misogynistic culture has women so threaded with fear. I also think the narcissistic traits that come with misogyny has the women blinded to what is happening. Great article for ways and hope to break the cycle .
Beautiful, as always. I am grateful there are Lindas in the world, full of strength and conviction. I feel lucky to live in a time and place where church women are exercising their gifts, even if, still too often, there's uphill climbing they must do for no other reason than they are women. Some good news: in my church, women fill all the leadership positions, head up most of the committees (despite the fact that our congregation is split pretty evenly between men and women), two of our three lead pastors, as well as our associate pastor, have been women, our bishop is a woman, and women outnumber men in our two local seminaries. I am convinced that the future of many faith traditions, including my own, is feminine. And for the ones where there isn't at least parity, well...that's to their great loss. Traditions that deny the gifts of some may survive but they can never thrive, not in the truest sense (which is not measured by butts in pews). Also, I am taken with Linda's vision of a holiday craft luncheon. I want these spaces and places for women. And if there is a male version of sitting around making wreaths, I want that, too. Male-centric culture has created political and social power for us men, but power robs even as it rewards. It has robbed so many of us of the skills needed to fulfill the very natural, human need to connect. Maybe what we men need is some good old-fashioned wreath-making and lemonade-sipping. I think the world could only be better for it. Lead on, Linda!