Last year, I traded a New York City apartment for a house in a Midwestern cornfield. After living on the East Coast for nearly a decade, I didn't know what to expect from the dramatic change of scenery. The thought crossed my mind that the move might show me something new about America. It ended up showing me something new about God.
On a wintry Wednesday night in our new Midwestern life, I wasn't expecting anything out of the ordinary when my husband and I gathered with a few friends from church for Bible study. We'd just started a DVD-based study about marriage, and as we pushed play to begin the lesson, I glanced down at a photocopied handout with the speaker's key points. On the white page in front of me, I read excerpted verses that played like a study in the overuse of ellipses:
Gen. 3:17— Then to Adam he said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife … "
Deut. 13:6— If … the wife you cherish … entice you secretly, saying, "Let us go and serve other gods … "
Job 2:10— He said to her, "You speak as one of the foolish women speaks … "
Prov. 9:13— The woman of folly is boisterous; she is naïve, and she knows nothing.
2Tim. 3:6— … captivate weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses.
The speaker on the DVD said these verses showed that women should appreciate the desire of men to analyze and provide counsel. But I had a hard time moving beyond the underlying premise, at least as I heard it: Women are foolish. Granted, a verse or two appeared on the following page about how a prudent wife is from the Lord, but that didn't counterbalance the overarching impression that women are at worst, shrewish, at best, naïve. When we began to discuss the lesson, I was more than a little surprised to realize my opinion wasn't the consensus view.
"I think men are more aware than women of their tendency to sin," one of the men suggested. "Maybe they can use this wisdom to help guide their wives."
I couldn't believe this was being discussed as a legitimate idea. I wanted to ask if he really thought that women are blinder than men to their own foibles. Instead, I stared ahead and tried to think of a constructive response.
And then I remembered. I do know a few women who might fit the description of the "woman of folly" in Proverbs 9. I'm usually too incredulous to speak up when they behave outrageously. But that's also because I watch them on-screen, on the reality show The Real Housewives. It's an expanding franchise that started in Orange County and now includes programs based in New York and Atlanta. As a Los Angeles Times writer described the series, "The general premise—that if you put a group of well-off women together, they will spend their time buying luxury goods, obsessing about their appearance and stabbing each other in the back—is, essentially, misogyny on a stick." Of course, it's these very qualities that make the housewives celebrities, in the newest evolution of the word. Celebrity is now defined not by accomplishment or talent but by bad behavior. We're less fascinated by on-screen glamour in the style of Lauren Bacall, and more preoccupied by off-screen antics in the style of Lindsay Lohan.
The cast of The Real Housewives seem to revel in their foolishness, but their misdeeds are perhaps a lesser offense than my confession that I enjoy their company. A New York Times writer aptly described the sentiment of reality-show viewers like me: "I watch reality shows to escape from meaning, to watch someone else's marriage break up or a friendship collapse with no more investment than I have in a Toyota commercial. I don't feel their pain—which, bombarded as we are with calamitous information, is sort of the whole point, isn't it?"
But therein lies the problem. As I read the excerpted verses on the Bible study handout, the reality archetype of Woman As Folly had come back to bite me. While indulging in The Real Housewives, it hadn't occurred to me that the caricatures on reality TV might influence our ideas about women in real life. Perhaps this new form of celebrity is just a regression to old stereotypes. It may be hard to imagine in the United States today, but arguments about the foolishness of women have been historically used to deny women civil rights. Early feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft tried to challenge the assumption that women were too flighty to receive a full education. A woman, she wrote, is not the "toy of man, his rattle," which "must jingle in his ears whenever, dismissing reason, he chooses to be amused." She sought to counter the concern that women's supposed folly would distract men from their more serious endeavors.
As my husband and I drove home after the Bible study, I found the voice that I had subdued during the group discussion.
"Don't they understand?" I said. "These sort of misconceptions—the idea that Christianity subjugates women—drive people away from the church."
What about the example of Jesus? He met with women and spoke with them as equals, in a time where such behavior raised eyebrows. After his resurrection, he entrusted the Good News to women first. In fact, the Resurrection raises a larger point: The cross itself shows that God doesn't play favorites with regard to our race, class, or gender. We are all given a chance at new life.
In the weeks that followed, our small group continued to revisit questions about the role of women. These conversations weren't about the usual hot button issues, such as women in leadership. We were simply discussing the nature of men and women as it relates to marriage. When I asked about the cultural and historical context for some of the verses that seemed to be proof texts for the study, I was startled by some of the replies.
"It seems pretty clear to me," one of the men replied. "After all, it's spelled out in 1 Timothy 2: 'And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing … '"
I wondered what he thought was so clear—that women bear a greater burden for the fall of man? "If I wasn't a Christian," I said, "these comments about women would turn me away from God."
I looked around the circle, wondering if I'd gone too far. But I hadn't even said what I truly felt: If the things you are saying are true, I'm not so sure that I want to know your God.
I wanted to deconstruct the ideas that were chipping away at my confidence in the Creator, but I felt outmatched. Among the men in our group, conversations often felt like a Scripture-quoting duel. Each time a new passage was referenced, I had the same question: What's the context? Their response was nearly always a puzzled look. It was as if I'd just suggested we tear out pages from our Bibles and fold them into paper airplanes. Scripture, they reminded me, is inerrant. So when we came to passages I found confusing, such as women will be saved through childbearing, I was left without answers. Instead, I learned some of our friends thought childbirth was an act of personal redemption.
"It's why I didn't want any pain medication," one of the mothers in the group interjected. "I wanted to experience everything."
I knew God wasn't going to deny salvation to women, like me, who didn't have children. Yet their certainty gave me pause. For a moment I wondered, What if I never have children? Would it undermine my ability to know God?
"I'm sorry," I imagined the angel at the gates of heaven would say. He'd look at me sympathetically and shrug. There wasn't much he could do about it now. It was there in the Bible: Women are saved through childbearing. I should have listened. I knew this daydream was a ridiculous way to think about the God of the universe, but I had become increasingly troubled that I couldn't bridge the gap between the teachings we heard week after week and my understanding of the Bible.
It was weeks before I started to seek out answers. Did God really see me as more foolish than my male counterparts? When he watched my day-to-day life, did he view it with the same sympathy I felt for the women of The Real Housewives? I pulled a book off my shelf that I hadn't opened since we arrived in the Midwest: The Reason for God, by the pastor of the church I had attended in New York. Thumbing through the pages, I came across a passage where Tim Keller lays out a recommendation for how to approach sections of the Bible that seem confusing.
Many people run from any consideration of the Bible once they find such a biblical passage. I counsel them instead to slow down and try out several different perspectives on the issues that trouble them. That way they can continue to read, learn, and profit from the Bible even as they continue to wrestle with some of its concepts. One possibility I urge them to consider is that the passage that bothers them might not teach what it appears to them to be teaching. Many of the texts people find offensive can be cleared up with a decent commentary that puts the issue into historical context.
I'd been doing exactly the opposite of what Keller recommended. I'd run from God when I felt uncomfortable, instead of digging deeper to find out more about him. I began to search through commentaries to see whether they might help me gain clarity. In the process, I found biblical arguments that helped me understand what certain verses meant for their original audience. In answer to my questions about 1 Timothy 2, I learned that in the original Greek, the definite article—"the"—preceded the word childbearing, which would seem to allude to a specific birth. "The birth" could thus be understood as the seminal event that would usher in salvation: the birth of Christ. Not only was this explanation logical, it was also biblical. I wondered why I'd let other interpretations of Scripture shake my understanding, instead of asking God to reveal to me the truth.
Months after the first discussion in our small group about marriage, I spent an early spring afternoon sorting through a few remaining boxes from our move, the last remnants of our life in New York. In one box, I found a notebook from my college years. More than a decade earlier, I had filled the lined pages with notes from a class at a Christian university. I stopped turning the pages when I came across a lecture entitled, "The Radical Optimism of Grace." I read one section—about questions of hierarchy in relationships between men and women—with particular interest. This line caught my eye:
We are all equal in the eyes of God: equally loved, sinful, and redeemed.
I think humanity has proven throughout the course of history that equality is not where we excel. We've let our differences breed discontent, and sometimes in the church we fall victim to this as well. We focus on defining our roles—a trap that makes us strange bedfellows with reality stars—instead of focusing on God. But where we see division, he sees the possibility for something greater through the work of the Cross.
Somewhere in the midst of my Manhattan life, I'd forgotten the importance of digging deeper into the Bible when confronted with a notion of God that didn't match my own, probably because such occasions were few and far between. This year, as I watch the stalks of corn grow outside my window, I'd like to remember to spend more time asking questions that draw me closer to my Creator—and maybe a little less time with The Real Housewives.
Jana Chapman Gates most recently served as the senior adviser to President Bush's Special Envoy to Sudan. Previously, she was a speechwriter for Secretary of the Treasury Henry M. Paulson, and the Deputy Spokesman for a succession of U.S. Ambassadors to the United Nations during the Bush Administration. She received a Master's Degree in Political Science from Columbia University.
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