Thursday, March 20, 2014

Reclaiming Eve

I was excited when the invitation came to participate in the blog tour for Nazarene Publishing House's new book, Reclaiming Eve, by Suzanne Burden, Carla Sunberg, and Jamie Wright.*

The first eight pages or so of chapter one ramble on a bit too much, like the authors are trying to cushion the blow of what they're about to say - and it's very likely they are - but the content itself is powerful and important, perhaps the cushion is needed. What's contained therein, is a valuable message about the place of women in the world and specifically in the Church: Women are valuable creations in the image of God, necessary and full partners in God's plan of redemption. Reclaiming Eve is confessional and narrative and unflinching and graceful all at the same time.

I recognize the awkward position I occupy as a man, reviewing a book by women, for women, about women, but I am glad for the opportunity, as a pastor, as the father of a daughter, and for more personal reasons.

The only real, definite calling I've ever felt from God was to preach. Subsequently, when I was in seminary I took every preaching class I could get my hands on. I learned a lot from those professors that really helped to shape and form that calling into something real. I think I learned a lot more though, from a specific group of fellow students.

It was my first preaching class; I was very nervous. Like most preaching courses, a lot of the time was used for preaching and hearing others preach. We had a lot of good preachers in the class, a lot of people who spent much time and effort preparing and preaching their sermons. We also had quite a few women in the class (it was the one required preaching class - oddly, my elective preaching classes never had many - or sometimes any! - women in them).

As I sat listening to these women preachers, a strange dichotomy built up inside me. They were not "good" preachers by any subjective definition I'd built up over the years. I'd heard at least two, maybe three sermons per week ever year of my life (oh the joys of growing up in the Church). These sermons from these women didn't register as "good," based on that experience. But they were good. Really good. We had some kick-ass preachers in that class. The best sermons in the course were from the women, undoubtedly.

So, I had to ask myself why they didn't seem "good" on first blush. I realized, it was because my perception of preaching had so been shaped by men, it was impossible, without work, to hear feminine preaching. Even those women preachers of past generations had to adopt a lot of the traditional male characteristics to be heard - loud voices, strong gestures, an almost shouted delivery.

I sat in that little chapel overcome with mixed regret and joy. Regret that the Church had, for so long, missed out on the strong, important, necessary voice of at least half our membership. These preachers were not weak and passive, but authoritative and strong in feminine ways. They were being themselves, not trying to assume the expectations for preachers that centuries of dominant men had laid out for the Church. My denomination had ordained women from the very beginning, but we've been awfully bad about treating women preachers with equality and justice through the years. It was a joyous thing to recognize that this generation of women finally felt free to be themselves in the pulpit and to assume the mantle of preacher in uniquely feminine ways.

It was also joyous because I don't naturally inhabit those traditionally masculine elements of preaching either. I'm much more quiet and inquisitive. I don't do shouting well or aggressive or dominant. That's just not me. That morning in preaching class, those women helped me understand that what's most important to my call as preacher is myself and my interaction with the text, my ability to allow God's Holy Spirit to speak uniquely through me and not some supposed expectation of preacher.

That experience confirmed my commitment to fairness and equality in ministry. And, as a happy irony, Carla Sunberg, one of the authors of this book, is now the President of that very seminary.

One major critique I have of Reclaiming Eve is that I'm not sure it goes far enough. They set up a partnership, used often, of adam and ezer, using two Hebrew words from Genesis to signify men and women. The "reclaiming" part of Reclaiming Eve is to recognize ezer as an equal partner - the typical definition is "a power, equal to, facing." The woman was created to be a helper, the way God is a helper, not as a subordinate.

My issue, though, is that I've always seen men as ezer as well as women. The way the Hebrew works in Genesis, there is no designation of the human as male or female - we often assume because adam is both the word for human and, later, the man's name, that a man was created first. That might be the case, but scripture never says that specifically. It says a human being was created - and it's not until after part of that human is removed to create Eve, that adam really becomes Adam. If ezer means a truly equal, complementary partner, then both Adam and Eve are ezer, equal in support of each other and only in combination - men and women working together in community - is humanity complete.

I recognize the reason for associating ezer with women in the book - the purpose of the book is to restore the confidence and position of women in the eyes of both themselves and the Church - but I think we need to be careful in its usage to not support a kind of subordinate complementarianism that is emerging in so many corners of evangelicalism. Equal is equal, even if it is different. I wrote more about this in another post.

Reclaiming Eve is a book that needed to be written and needs to be read. It's important coming from women, as well. This does present some problems if the authors want to avoid being dismissed as "crazy feminists" by the kind of people who do such a thing. They probably could not go as far as I did above in stressing equality - and they continue to use masculine pronouns for God.

I was at first turned off by the feminine illustrations (I have no experience trying on dresses), but then I realized that most books for a "general audience" have no problem using strictly masculine illustrations and assuming women will follow, why is the opposite not appropriate?

I then realized this book really is for women. The final three chapters deal specifically with ways women interact with each other and the Church. They are different in nature and tone than the first four chapters and are addressed specifically to women. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, I just hope, in the future, more books - by men and women - will include the kind of radically empowering gospel the authors of Reclaiming Eve manage to pack into its first half.

At worst it is a powerful conversation starter and a profound support for women who often feel lost in the Church; at best it provides great fuel to the Church's active promotion of women as full partners in life and ministry.

Read this book!

* I did receive a free copy of the book in preparation for this post, but that does not, in any way, affect what I have to say, nor would I let it. Anyone who knows me knows that is most definitely true.

1 comment:

Suzanne Cross-Burden said...

Ryan: It's hard to explain how much I enjoyed your post. Thank you for reaching out to lift up your sisters and for your honest feedback and passion for gender reconciliation in the Kingdom.