“Jesus made me a feminist.” …Go on.
“A patriarchy is not God’s plan”…Okay, now really go on.
I just finished Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey, a book that’s been on my to-read pile since I found it in a book store in the South last Christmas. I grew up in a Southern evangelical family, and have incredibly mixed and emotional feelings about it, which have only become more complex witnessing Southern evangelicals getting behind a president who seemingly betrays so many of their stated values.
Making things more complex: My evangelical parents didn’t vote for Trump. My mom is an incredibly strong person, who always speaks her mind, who worked, loved working, and raised two daughters to go forth in the world and slay their dreams. In so many ways, my mother made me a feminist. But I also have a mother who doesn’t believe women should be able to control their bodies, and whose beliefs I violently clash with when it comes to LGBTQ rights.
The title came from Bessey’s experience saying she was a feminist in Church gatherings and the reaction she got. “What kind of feminist?” people would say. “Oh, a Jesus Feminist,” she’d say to break the tension. But the more she explores her spiritual and equality journeys, she discovered that it was her evangelical faith that made her a feminist.
Now that’s a head f*ck you don’t hear everyday. (Sorry, evangelicals who may be reading this!)
I went through so many emotions reading this book. Unlike a lot of folks I know in San Francisco, I do believe in God. But the brand of being Christian has been so sullied in this country, it is so at opposition with all of my other most closely held beliefs, that I live most of my life as the precise opposite of an evangelical. I’m a closeted Christian if anything, and really I don’t even like the “Christian” label applied to what I believe. I felt embarrassed reading this book in the airport. And then shame for feeling embarrassed.
At times I felt this book was a revelation. Just as Pete Buttigieg is redefining and reclaiming Christianity as a gay man on the campaign trail, the beginning of this book does that for feminism. It gives a playbook, a hidden window, and hope that evangelical women might start to support candidates that also champion their rights. I have no interest in hearing the point of view of bigots or white supremicists. I have lots of interest in hearing the points of view of people who grew up in a repressive culture and are trying to find ways to honor what they believe and fight for equality. People who are questioning what other people—not God—tell them their faith should mean in the real world.
At times this book was triggering. One of the things that makes it so powerful is that Bessey isn’t just trying on evangelical faith. She uses all the same language that I heard in my home growing up. Frankly, it’s a language that I think of when I think of the ways many evangelicals use religion to deny other people their rights. To my ear, and this is not meant to judge, it’s just my baggage from my childhood; it is a language that reminds me of why gay family members have had lifelong depression because of how they were treated in the name of an evangelical God. Why I have so much body shame, why I was so repressed in so many ways.
Despite Bessey and I agreeing on so many things about women’s rights, her views on reproductive rights were difficult for me to read, process, and square with the other things she championed.
No matter what, she is incredibly brave to put this out into the world. She takes aim at the diminutive role women are expected to play in the church, and the experiences that she had in American churches that were so contrary to women’s equality that she almost lost her faith. As she notes, there’s almost no one the title doesn’t offend. Feminists may balk at the Jesus part given the debate over reproductive rights; and evangelicals certainly balk at the word “feminism.” Parts of the book almost read like a mirror image to my feminist manifesto. I wrote at one point that using the word “patriarchy” in Silicon Valley meetings causes more gasps than an f-bomb. She says that saying “feminist” in church is more shocking in many cases than the other f-word.
She beautifully rises above the tit-for-tat Bible-verse-off that tends to dominate debates like these. While she very much believes the Bible is the word of God, she uses one of the best arguments I’ve heard to explain why Bible verses have to be considered in context to the whole and the times they were written: The Bible’s defenses of slavery and the history around the church’s move to switch sides on that debate.
The book is more about Jesus than feminism. And so it may not be for you. But if you want a more nuanced look at evangelicals who are wrestling with what their faith represents in popular culture right now, it might be an informative read. Just as with any other group, evangelicals don’t all move, think or vote in lock step. My parents didn’t and Bessey doesn’t either.
One of the reasons it’s so hard to be a journalist is that you are constantly making people uncomfortable. If everyone is happy with a story you wrote, you probably didn’t do your job. I know a lot of evangelicals wouldn’t be happy with this book. I wasn’t totally happy with this book. And that may be the biggest reason that other feminists and evangelicals should read it.
(BTW: You may notice we have categories and tabs live on the site today! We hope this will make it easier to find the kinds of discussions you are looking for on Chairman Mom. For more discussions on spirituality, go here!)
Today’s new questions on Chairman Mom:
- My boss keeps asking me how to handle issues related to diversity. It isn’t my job.
- Has anyone here had to maintain a civil relationship with a co-parent’s new significant other that you abhorred?