An Unfair Review of The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr
I thought the title should just reflect what white evangelical critics of my work will probably call it. I’m all about the preemptive strike. So here goes…
When I first heard about this book, the title made me hopeful. When I heard that Dr. Beth Allison Barr was a medieval historian and professor, I was intrigued. But I also knew I was in no need convincing that women should be allowed to preach from the pulpit. For anyone who doesn’t know my story, I was in and out of the Assemblies of God denomination from birth through adulthood. The AOG allows women to become ordained pastors of men & women and lead congregations, something the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) does not. I’ve also deconstructed all the way to agnosticism, and a vocal advocate for intersectional feminism. Not to mention I’m never short on things to say about the power structures within white evangelicalism.
Intrigue aside, I was still hesitant to read it, because to be honest any defense of scripture these days makes me a little stabby. But earlier in the week a review by Dr. Jill Hicks-Keeton published by Religion Dispatches caught my attention. Dr. Hicks-Keeton is a biblical scholar and professor at Oklahoma University and offered a unique perspective on the book, considering her similar upbringing to Barr. And it’s clear she understands the way patriarchy permeates that world, “…Christian patriarchy digs deeper into the psyches of those who grow up in it. It entwined itself around parts of me that remained even after I rejected the Baptist Bible’s authority. Its removal requires deeper excavation.”
With all this in mind, and because I like being frustrated by things that are out of my control apparently, I chose to read the book anyway. I shared some of my initial thoughts on Twitter when I was about halfway through, and those thoughts still stand. And rest assured I’m not going to pull apart the entire book with a fine-tooth comb, as the book was clearly not written for women like me. Which leads me to the conclusions I came to after finishing the book. This is not something I normally do, but the following are the actual notes I typed into my phone, while laying in bed in the dark last night thinking about this book:
I didn’t need to know the history of women in medieval churches to know that shit is toxic.
I didn’t need someone to explain to me why the ESV translation is misogynistic, homophobic garbage.
An essay on words mistranslated in the Bible that doesn’t include ALL the mistranslations, is pretty damn useless.
I wish she had appealed to the readers’ humanity to see all people in the Imago Dei, not just white evangelical women who want to be pastors.
I don’t need scripture to justify my equality as a human being. We need people to realize all human beings have equal value and worth, no matter what their beliefs.
I get that there’s people that need this handholding to eek their way out of abusive theology. I think it sucks. I think decades of people leaving because they were being abused should be enough. But apparently it only counts if you still declare the bible, and Christianity, “good.” Her words will hold more weight because she’s a believer; but her words won’t go far because she’s still a white woman in world made for white men.
The nature of the bubble is that once you’re out, your words cease to hold any meaning for those who are in. But if your words are too dangerous when you’re still in, you’ll be out. The goal is always to stay in the bubble. Barr will be criticized, but her clear desire is to stay in the bubble.
That concludes this weeks episode of Emily’s Late Night Brain. And yet I still wonder why sleep so often eludes me. But I digress, let’s keep moving.
Dr. Barr took her book as far as her personal beliefs allowed her to. She dipped her toe into heresy, knowing she’d irritate the Mohler’s and Piper’s of the denomination (always a plus in my book), but still held the bible with enough reverence to not upset your average white Christian who still believes the bible is god-breathed. Some white evangelicals defending Dr. Barr have been quick to point out that she’s a woman doing a hard thing- and she is, without a doubt. But the thing she’s doing still offers some semblance of protection to the “good guys” of the SBC. It frames the problem of patriarchy as a simple misinterpretation of the text within the creation the English bible.
She does go about busting up the cult of domesticity, and I’m glad she does, because goodness me that myth has been trapping women in their own little prisons for too long. But I think the book falls short of lamenting all that women have lost. All the women who held the line for fear of falling out of god’s favor, who believed the lie that their highest calling was wife & mother and blamed only themselves when that calling fell short.
Perhaps the reason the book is missing that last part is that Dr. Barr didn’t believe the whole lie. She carved out her own career. Found a supportive husband who allowed her to pursue her own work in academia. But not everyone is so lucky. I mentioned my own upbringing at the beginning of this post, that I grew up hearing women preach from the pulpit. However, the cult of domesticity permeates all of American Christianity. I spent the better part of my life, all the way into my early 30’s, believing the lie my highest calling was wife and mother. And I never once was a member of an SBC church. Because all it takes is enmeshment in the evangelical subculture to fall prey to these lies, and that subculture goes beyond denominational lines. Countless books by Christian women, bible studies, music, conferences, you name it, its everywhere. Now I will confess that my road out the door was paved with the rare woman who wrote a book telling me I could be more. But like Barr, those women implied I still had to embrace the other lies the bible told me about myself.
That’s right, there are many more ways that scripture hurts people. There are not enough mental gymnastics in the world to convince me there’s some better universal way to read Paul’s words, or even Jesus’ words in some cases, in a way that doesn’t deny human beings’ agency over their minds and bodies. As long as you keep insisting on the bible’s overall “goodness” or that its necessary for morality, you will never stop perpetuating the abuse it leaves in its wake. As long as white evangelicals keep waging war against autonomy by voting and lobbying for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, and by sending kids to conversion therapy, it doesn’t matter at all if they let women preach or not.
I know, I know, that’s not what her book was about. But if we’re going to talk about the subjugation of women in Christianity, if we’re going to talk about abusive theology, why stop with straight white women? At the end of her book, Dr. Barr says “Historically one of the greatest problems for women is that we do not remember our past and we do not work together to change our future. We do not stand together. But what if we did?”
The problem is the future that white evangelical women are working for is not the same future that black women, queer women, indigenous women, and migrant women are working toward. So Dr. Barr, respectfully, until you are willing to stand with all women, don’t talk to me about not remembering our past, because all those other women I just mentioned- I guarantee they haven’t forgotten how they’ve been treated by straight white evangelical women, historically and otherwise.
 Barr, B.A. (2021) The Making of Biblical Womanhood. Brazos Press. Grand Rapids, MI.