by Susan Trollinger
Beth Allison Barr (PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is professor of history and associate dean of the Graduate School at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where she specializes in medieval history, women’s history, and church history. She is the president of the Conference on Faith and History and is a member of Christians for Biblical Equality. Barr has written for Christianity Today, the Washington Post, and Religion News Service, and is a regular contributor to The Anxious Bench, the popular Patheos website on Christian history.
Thank you so much for writing this book and agreeing to this interview! I loved reading it and am already aware of multiple ways in which it will impact both my research and my teaching. One of the big reasons that your book is so compelling, in my opinion, is the way that it weaves together brilliant historical research with memoir. As a rhetorical scholar (of, in recent years, evangelicalism/fundamentalism) and a committed Christian (whose personal experience with evangelicalism/fundamentalism has impacted my life in profound ways), I have so many questions for you. But, in the interest of a blog post that is not too long, I am going to keep my questions to just six.
- Would you please talk about how and why you made the decision to weave together your historical/theological analysis with your personal story? How did you come to that decision?
The first words I wrote for Making Biblical Womanhood were about Lynn Hybels. I still remember that moment I heard her speak so well—watching her stand small on the conference stage, confessing the script that she had tried to live until it almost destroyed her. I didn’t mean to start drafting the book at this moment, but when I thought about how I wanted to tell the story, she came to mind. I realized while historical evidence would carry my argument, it was people I needed to reach. Women like Lynn Hybels who lived and breathed the world of biblical womanhood and couldn’t find a way to escape it. I decided to meet the audience I wanted to reach through the language we share as evangelical Christians—the language of our testimony.
It wasn’t an easy decision to weave my testimony throughout the book. It required a vulnerability that I normally do not display. I was afraid of letting people know the hardest parts of my life. I was afraid of the critique I would receive from those who would dismiss my story as experiential instead of evidential. I was afraid of the critique I would receive from scholars who might dismiss me academically because I showed too much bias toward my Christian faith. I was afraid of what it would mean for my children and husband when strangers knew so much of our personal story.
Yet I knew it would be worth it. I knew that if this book was going to stand a chance of changing the conversation about women in church, I had to reach both hearts and brains. I had to share not only the historical evidence that so powerfully undermines biblical womanhood, but I also had to testify about how the message of biblical womanhood played out it my own life.
- One of the things I’m learning as a rhetorical scholar married to and co-authoring with a historian is how rhetorical history is. It’s not like I didn’t know that—intellectually. But I know it now in a much more profound way. How did you come to the realization that history has so much rhetorical power? How did you come to understand that the stories that have been told and the stories that we tell of the past make all the difference?
This is a wonderful question. Would you believe that it was medieval sermons that first convinced me of rhetorical power? It was in the midst of my early graduate school days that the dustup exploded over gender inclusive Bible translations. I remember reading Wayne Grudem and Vern Poythress’ damning critique of replacing “mankind” with “human” and “brothers” with “brothers and sisters.” The Christian sky was collapsing, according to their furor, yet I was reading texts penned by medieval clergy more than 500 years earlier that regularly incorporated gender inclusive language in both their sermons and translations of bible verses within sermons. I also realized that medieval sermons, although written in a patriarchal world too, incorporated many more stories about women—both from the Bible and church history—than I had ever heard in my Baptist Sunday School classes. It had never occurred to me that Mary Magdalene was the first preacher, bringing the news of the Gospel to the apostles on that first Easter morning, until I read about it in a fifteenth-century sermon. I find it so ironic that it took a medieval priest to open my eyes to a significant problem in American evangelicalism.
It was also my study of medieval history that made me realize the dominant male-bias of seminary history textbooks. My husband was working on his MDiv while I was working on my PhD, and I remember flipping through some of his texts. I was shocked by how quickly the church history textbooks jumped from the ancient church to the Reformation, barely glazing the 1000 years of medieval history. When I begin to dig deeper, I found that when medieval Christianity was discussed, it focused mostly on male clergy and male monastics, and when women entered the conversations, they were almost never discussed as leaders or preachers. The message sent to pastors-in-training, then, is that men have always been the preachers and leaders of the church. Is it any wonder that so many pastors believe that women preaching is a modern idea based on American culture rather than the reality of church history?
I think, though, it was my daughter who really made me understand the importance of including women in the stories we tell. She was around 6 or 7, reading a book for school (she has always been a voracious reader). She was hanging over the side of the chair looking bored. It surprised me because the book was about gladiators. Isn’t it interesting, I asked her? No, she answered. “But the page with the girl gladiators, I liked that page,” she said. And just like that my daughter taught me how critical it was for women to see ourselves in the story. Because we write women out of the Bible—using androcentric language and minimizing the stories about women—it becomes much easier to write women out of church history. And, like my daughter, evangelical woman who cannot see themselves as part of the story become less interested in being part of the story. Because women don’t realize the significant roles we have played as leaders and preachers in history, women are less likely to recognize their calling as preachers and leaders today.
- As I read your book, I got a pretty good sense of your target audience. The closing lines of your book are especially moving in that regard. How did you come to know who your target audience would to be? And how did you think about that from the perspective of your position as a historian and a scholar? In some ways, my question is about your sense of your calling or vocation. How do you understand your vocation as a historian and as a woman of faith in these times? How is your scholarship a realization of your vocation?
A friend just told me last week that I was the only one who could have written this book. I’m not sure if I am the only one who could have written it (or one like it), but I can see clearly how God made it possible for me to write this book. Indeed, that is why I decided to do it. I never intended to write a book like this, much less share my story with such a large audience. But when Katelyn Beaty suggested I should think about writing a book, I realized that I had all the pieces to do so. All my life I knew God called me to be a teacher and scholar; all my life I knew I was also called to ministry. I have never been interested in preaching, but I have always been interested in teaching and mentoring women. This book brought all my callings together, perfectly aligned. The reality is that much of the evidence I present in Making Biblical Womanhood isn’t really new (except for my own medieval sermon research). Most of it has been known by scholars for years, and explained clearly in numerous articles and books. But evangelical Christians are not reading this scholarship. I realized that God had situated me perfectly to reach this evangelical audience by speaking the evangelical language of testimony. I could tell my testimony, the impact of Christian patriarchy on my life, and combine it with the historical evidence that the evangelical world simply did not know. I cannot tell you how amazing it is to think how God brought all the threads of my life together to write this book. It is humbling and awe-inspiring. It also reminds me how complex a vocation can be—I’m not just called to be a historian or Sunday School teacher; I’m called to use my gifts as a historian and teacher in numerous outlets: in my college classroom, with my graduate students, in my Sunday School class, and in my writing.
Was I called to write this book? Yes, I am certain I was.
- The world of evangelicalism/fundamentalism is, so far as I can tell, in a really bad place right now. It seems like the right phrase is something like “a scandal a day.” Of course, all that has everything to do with the powerful history that you tell about how biblical womanhood came to be and how the patriarchy attendant to it is strenuously being maintained. Your book introduces a powerful fissure into the otherwise hegemonic (in the Gramscian sense—dominating but not fixed) discourse of evangelicalism/fundamentalism. How are you reading the efforts today to keep the patriarchal discourses of evangelicalism/fundamentalism afloat? What story do you imagine historians will tell 20 years from now about this seemingly pregnant (if I may) moment?
Well, historians really don’t like to predict the future. We are much more comfortable arguing about the past. But I think you are right. We are at a pregnant moment. Expectation is thick in the air as evangelicals grapple with the sobering reality of what we have been and the determined reality that we cannot be that anymore. We must be better. I hope that the story historians tell 20 years from now is one of freedom for evangelical women. That Christian scholars working from the inside out challenged the church to revisit long-held ideas about women and race, and that the church listened. This is the story I hope we can watch unfold. As a historian, however, I know that change comes slowly. I’m playing the long game with The Making of Biblical Womanhood. If I can help people begin to consider that they might be wrong and perhaps begin to make some small changes within their churches and seminaries, then—over many years—we will see women begin to move back into serving alongside men rather than underneath them. I think, I hope, that this change has already begun.
- What responses have you received from evangelical/fundamentalist women to your book? Do they contact you directly? Are you hearing things indirectly? And, more generally, what are you sensing of the impact of your book? And what do you think it means?
Releasing this book is the hardest thing I have ever done; harder even than writing it. But the response has made everything worth it. Not a day goes by that I do not receive messages from women all over the world telling me how much this book has changed their lives. Some of the messages are heartbreaking—women with stories very similar to mine who are still broken. So many of them have told me that my book has brought them hope again; that it has restored their faith knowing that God has always been for them. Some of the messages are just encouraging—women and men reaching out to cheer me on; to tell me how important my book has been to them and how they are sending it to all their friends. Some of the messages have been very interesting—from complementarian men who are in leadership positions telling me that my book has challenged them. While I may not have convinced them, they are thinking hard. Some of the messages have been funny—women and men reaching out with their own stories about purity culture or taking pastors’ wives classes. One woman told me a story that made me laugh and laugh for like 20 minutes. It was about the day her pastors’ wives class taught them how to get out of a car “like a lady.” They had diagrams and had to practice in their classroom seats. I still laugh thinking about that story!
I cannot count how many messages I have received so far through email, Twitter, and Instagram. But the overwhelming response shows me that not only are people reading The Making of Biblical Womanhood, but they are listening to it. And it is impacting their hearts and minds. The response gives me hope, as I told one of my readers, that this might actually work. I wrote a call to action in the final chapter, reminding women that complementarianism only works because women continue to support it. So, what if we stopped supporting it? When I wrote that, it was a pipe dream. But now I am beginning to think it might work.
- Finally, what is next for you? What are you thinking about? Writing about?
I honestly intended this book to be my only foray into the broader publishing world. My academic heart is in the medieval archives, and I want to finish my monograph on Women in Late Medieval English Sermons. But I also feel God working on my heart. There might still be more work to do, so I recently signed with a literary agent and we will see what might be next.
Again, many thanks to Beth for allowing me to interview her! What a joy! We here at rightingamerica hope to hear a lot more from her, both in this blog and through books not yet written but, perhaps, already in the works in one way or another.