Tuesday, December 15, 2009

12 Women in Gilded Cages?- A Critique of John MacArthur's "Twelve Extraordinary Women"

I'm in a book group with some of my gal pals, and we meet at a local coffee shop on Saturday mornings to drink coffee, laugh, encourage each other, and discuss a Christian study book. We recently finished up "Respectable Sins" by Jerry Bridges, which was very convicting and very useful. The next book we have just started on is "Twelve Extraordinary Women" by John MacArthur.


I knew going into this book I would probably have issues with it, because I'm familiar with John MacArthur's view of women and also his theology in general. Let's just say he and I don't see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. But after reading the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2, I realized it was much, much worse than I expected.

My critiques of his teaching fall under two categories-- 1) his antiquated, patronizing view of women (which could simply be a product of the generation in which he grew up); and 2) his poor exegesis and intepretation of the Biblical passages, which is a much graver charge.

I consider myself a "pro-life feminist," a differentiation that wasn't necessary in the 19th century, when most feminists were staunchly against abortion. I also support many aspects of the "modern feminist movement" that get criticized in church circles (as if the feminist movement were a monolith thing, but that's a discussion for another day). Yes, men and women are different, but you will have a hard time convincing me that a woman shouldn't do this or that solely because she is a woman. I agree with the idea that there are more differences within the sexes than between them. For instance, some think that women shouldn't be combat soldiers because they're "weaker," or "they can't handle the intensity of combat," or "what about if they are taken prisoner." I say that being a combat soldier is based more on a person's temperament than their gender. Some men would completely fold under the pressure, just as some women would. But many women would rise to the occasion and prove themselves "tough enough," just as many men would. On the flip side of that coin, if we are going to deny women the right to enter whatever field they want, then to be "fair," we should also deny men the right to certain fields, such as being OB/GYN doctors. Sure, men can do the jobs, but aren't women better suited? If someone doesn't like that last argument, then they should reevaluate their opinion on women doing "men's work."

This brings me to MacArthur's antiquated view of women. He talks often of "feminine virtues," by which, ironically, he means things like "hospitality" and "ministry to the sick." I was under the impression that those were Christian virtues that both men and women were to do. He reverences "feminine beauty," and while he does clarify that true beauty comes from having a good character, he spends a whole paragraph talking about how Eve must have been a real knock-out. ("Eve was the flawless archetype of feminine excellence. She was magnificent in every way.... Physically, too, she must have personified all the best traits of both strength and beauty. There is no doubt that she was a living picture of sheer radiance." More on this later.)

He also talks about women like they are dainty little creatures who need constant protection ("... women are now being sent into combat situations, subjected to grueling physical labor once reserved for men, exposed to all kinds of indignities in the workplace...") or as a special type of creature whose character is open for judgement and critique by men in general. In reference to "stunningly attractive" Sarah, Abraham's wife, he says, "Wherever she went, she instantly received favor and privilege because of her good looks. That kind of thing can spoil the best of women." (Emphasis mine.)

But more disturbing to me is how he is "teaching" from scripture when it seems like he is basing his opinion on conjecture and hypothesis. For instance, in the quote about Eve above, he is making a conjecture on her appearance, even when he admits that scripture "give us no physical description of Eve." If scripture doesn't mention it, I find it curious that he feels he needs to spend a whole paragraph hypothesizing on her looks. He often explains a verse and then throws something out there as if it is a foregone conclusion, even though the text doesn't support it. For example, when he talks about how God took a rib from Adam to form Eve, he says, "Adam would feel no pain, of course." Now, many assume there was no pain before the Fall, but I don't think that scripture implicitly says that--especially since later, in the curse, God said he would increase Eve's pain in childbirth, not introduce pain (a point MacArthur tries to explain away). He also makes conjectures about how Adam might have altered God's instructions about the forbidden fruit when he told Eve, since, as he says, "It is likely that Eve had heard about God's only restriction not directly from God, but from her husband." We can speculate about that, but we don't know what happened with any certainty. Now, I think it can be useful to think through the "what-ifs" and the "I wonders" in regards to scripture, but when your speculation cannot be clearly delineated from the facts, then that is poor teaching in my mind.

My biggest gripe, and the most disturbing, is how MacArthur portrays a woman's relationship with God-- He doesn't! He spends all his time describing Eve's relationship to Adam. He never says Eve was created for God's glory. He says, "Adam was created first; then Eve was made to fill a void in his existence." Eve "perfectly met every need Adam had, satisfied every longing he may ever have felt and delighted every faculty of his senses." Whoa, whoa, whoa, back up the truck. So Eve was created solely for Adam's needs and pleasures? In addition to the way this sentences objectifies Eve, it ignores the fact that she was created for God. In His image, both male and female He created them, for His (God's) own good pleasure, not his (Adam's) own good pleasure. Yes, Adam needed a helper, and yes, Eve met many of those needs. But if Eve could "perfectly [meet] every need Adam had," then why on earth would Adam need God? MacArthur also says that Eve was "Adam's complement in every sense, designed by God to be the ideal soul-companion for him," but he doesn't mention the reverse--how Adam was designed to complement Eve and be a companion for her.

Another troublesome sentence is when MacArthur is discussing the curse and says when it addresses Eve, "it deals with the two most important relationships in which a woman might naturally seek her highest joy: her husband and her children." Obviously a woman's most important relationship should be the one she has with God. A statement like this seems oblivious to the fact that not all women have children and not all women have husbands. Eve may be an example for women in many respects and the Fall certainly influences all humanity, but we must exercise care in applying the particulars of her situation as a general rule for all women everywhere.

The general idea I get from reading MacArthur's teaching is that woman is for man and man is for God. A woman must go through her husband to reach God, and God reaches woman through her husband. Now, in all fairness, I haven't read the rest of the book, so he may deal differently with single women. But his message for married women seems to be our sole purpose is to serve our husbands, meet their needs, and thus in that way, glorify God. Yes, we do glorify God when we support, respect, and help our husbands. But that's not the only way we glorify God as women, nor do I even think it is the most important way.

MacArthur seems to trace most trouble in our families and our churches back to women and men not fulfilling the roles he thinks they should have: "I'm convinced that if people today would simply embrace God's purpose and seek to fulfill the roles God has designed for our respective genders, both men and women would be happier, the church would be healthier, and marriages would be stronger." Does he really mean to say that before the "modern feminist movement," families and churches were healthier and stronger? When exactly was that, Mr. MacArthur? What golden age of utopia in our marriages and churches are you referring to? Even when men and women stuck to their "gender roles," there was just as much trouble in families and churches as there is today. I'm not a believer in the "good ol' days" and that somehow we are worse off or more sinful today in our modern age. Sin has always been sin, and to think that a change in gender roles has led to a more sinful time in the life of the church seems a bit naive to me.

I'm struggling with whether I should finish the rest of the book or not. If I do, it won't be to gain any insight but rather to critique the author and his teaching. I know I can't look at it objectively now that I'm riled up, ticked off, and upset. The thing is, I want to look at the Bible and see what it says to me as a Christian, not just as a woman. I get the feeling that MacArthur feels true Bible study is for men, and women can find a few nuggets just for them here and there. This book is a companion book to "Twelve Ordinary Men," a discussion of the twelve disciples. I haven't read it, but obviously it's not a manual on how to be better husbands and fathers, since the lives of the disciples as told in the scriptures do not reveal much about that aspect of their lives. Yet all I've learned so far is how MacArthur thinks I should live as a wife and as a mother, not as a Christian. I assume for him, being a Christian woman is synonymous with wife and mother unless circumstances absolutely prevent it, in which case God makes an exception. Maybe I'll read the rest of the book and see if I'm overly harsh in my criticisms. Expect more ranting if I do finish the book. =)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sparrows in the Snow

Last week, we were hit with a major snowstorm that closed all the schools and many businesses for two days. High winds and freezing temperatures made the roads hazardous, and the snow drifted over 4 feet in places. Since temperatures have been hanging out below 10 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, most of the snow remains.

I was washing dishes this morning and looking out our kitchen window at the snow that covered our yard and drifted up against our neighbors' fence. Then I spotted a commotion in our neighbors' yard—a huge flock of birds descending on the small bird feeder in their backyard. I'm not very good at identifying birds, especially at a distance, so I'm not sure what kind they were. Small and dark brown. The birds flitted en masse between the feeder and the fence, the feeder and the fence, as if they were moving on cue. Those that couldn't squeeze their way in at the feeder were pecking at the ground below for any morsels the sloppy birds above dropped. I noticed there was no snow below the feeder, and I'm not sure if it's because it drifted in such a way to leave a bare spot, or if our neighbors cleared the ground below for the birds. Either way, our neighbors are older and both disabled, and it probably was no easy task for them to trudge through the snow to fill the feeder.

Of course I immediately thought of the verse in Matthew 6:26: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” And also Matthew 10:29-31: "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."

God was providing for these little birds through the thoughtfulness of our neighbors. My thoughts then drifted, as they often do when contemplating the goodness of God, to a quandary-- a seeming exception. What about starving children, Lord? How many in the world will go hungry today? I have given, Lord. Should I give more? What more can I do? You could fix it so easily. It's not as simple as setting up “bird feeders” of sorts. Handing out food is good, but it's not always enough. It's drought, it's floods, it's disease—things within the natural world which are within Your control to direct and change. It's also politics, war, and bloodthirsty demagogues—things that are a direct result of sin, and while You don't promise to remove the consequences of sin, could you not spare more of the innocent? (I obviously was ignoring the parts in the passages exhorting me not to worry.)

I have no answers on this cold, wintry day. My family and I have shelter from the cold and plenty of food to eat. We have coats against the cold and a furnace that runs. We live in peace in a wealthy, stable country. We have access to medical care. We have a church that is free to meet without fear of repression. Relatively speaking, we are living in the lap of luxury in many respects. And yet so many in the world don't even have enough food for today.

As we approach the celebration of Jesus' birth, I realize more and more that stuffing ourselves with everything we set our eyes on and filling our houses with gifts upon gifts not only misses the true reason for Christmas, but it may even be offensive to our Savior. And while we all pay lip service to this sentiment, we still go out and buy the gifts, we still make the mountains of food, and we still run ourselves ragged all in the name of the “Christmas spirit.” Yet I think of our neighbors, who despite the difficulties they face on a daily basis, wanted to show kindness and compassion to some of God's creatures and did it in one of the few ways available to them. How much more can I give, to fill the feeder, to scatter the seed, and to spread the blessing to others this Christmas?

We've made it a habit to give to a ministry in honor of our family members in lieu of Christmas gifts. If you are looking for an excellent ministry to donate to, consider the Zimbabwe Emergency Relief Fund through TEAM. (My mother is a missionary in Zimbabwe with TEAM, so I know the money goes to help the people they are working with). Of course there are many wonderful charities and ministries that would be worthwhile places for your gifts.

"He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty. "

Mary's Magnificat, Luke 2:52

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Anne Rice's "The Road to Cana"

Earlier this year I posted a blog on Anne Rice's book, "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt." I had intended to pick up the companion book immediately after finishing the first one, but I didn't get around to it until a few weeks ago. "Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana" has since made its way to the list of books that have significantly influenced my faith for life.

I won't go into a lot of detail here, because a summary doesn't do justice to the masterful way Anne Rice handles the subject matter and how she seems to make the prose sing (I can't say this about many authors, but I literally read one chapter aloud just to hear the words dance). The book further paints a picture of what it really means for Jesus to be well acquainted with our sufferings and temptations. She imagines, for example, what it would have been like for Jesus to be in love in a romantic sense, to be tempted in physical ways, to experience the heartbreak of love unrequited, and to remain sinless through it all.

Chapter 21 (the chapter I read aloud) is worth the price of admission in and of itself. It depicts Jesus, alone with his thoughts and in prayer with His Father, as he struggles for the 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism. I will quote a bit of it just so you can get a taste:

"Oh, Lord, God, what is judgment and how can it be, if I cannot bear to be with all of them for every ugly word, every harsh and desperate cry, for every gesture examined, for every deed explored to its roots? And I saw the deeds, the deeds of my own life, the smallest, most trivial things, I saw them suddenly in their seed and sprout and with their groping branches; I saw them growing, intertwining with other deeds, and those deeds come to form a thicket and a woodland and a great roving wilderness that dwarfed the world as we hold it on a map, the world as we hold it in our minds. Dear God, next to this, this endless spawning of deed from deed and word from word and thought from thought--the world is nothing. Every single soul is a world!"

And later: "What judgment can there ever be for man, woman, or child--if I am not there for every heartbeat at every depth of their torment?"

It gets better, but I obviously can't quote the whole book here.

I know some people may object to a fiction book putting words in Jesus' mouth that scripture doesn't record Him saying, but Ms. Rice does not give Him words that seem out of place with His character. As in the first book, she shows great restraint in her depiction, and in this second book, she also shows the amazing restraint Jesus Himself must have shown in all aspects of His life. Reading Jesus' "thoughts," one begins to grasp how humanity and divinity might have overlapped and tugged at Him and how He denied Himself many things and endured much so that He could be the perfect sacrifice He came to be. I think I now can better understand the passages in Hebrews that talk about Jesus being "made perfect," because His sinless self had to undergo suffering and temptation in order to be the empathetic, substitutionary high priest and "the source of eternal salvation" (Hebrews 5:9). It is a great encouragement to me to seek to do what's right even when it's hard, to choose the path of love even when my mind cries out for justice, and to follow His commands because I know He's been there before and will walk with me through it again.