The scandal of the evangelical mind is pink.
Or to put it less dramatically, there’s another scandal of the evangelical mind—beyond the widely recognized one, introduced by Mark Noll’s landmark book and rightly the topic of conversation for 30 years since—that has yet to receive the attention it requires. This is the scandal of the intellectual life of Christian women, and it is only becoming more acute, even alongside milestones like the election of the first female president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS).
After all, the conversation about women in the ETS, while significant, pertains to very few women—those in academia and, therefore, in attendance at this kind of conference. But what about the vast majority of Christian women, those whose primary calling is outside the ivory tower?
It would be easy to turn this conversation into a lament over the doors closed to talented women scholars who would have made excellent academics, had that path been open for them. We can consider Dorothy Sayers as a particularly famous example. She solved her own scandal of the evangelical mind with a brilliant intellectual career outside of academia. She also found herself in a lamentable situation where she felt forced to choose this career over motherhood.
Still, her story reminds us that at any point in world history, only the tiniest fraction of Christian women could be academics. The average woman had to figure out a different way of loving God with all her mind.
What I have not seen acknowledged sufficiently to date is this important reality: Women, whether married or not, mothers or not, face a different intellectual scandal than men. Yes, God commands all of us to love him with our minds as well as our hearts, souls, and strengths (Luke 10:27). But this can mean something different for women than it does for men.
The reasons for these differences are particularly obvious and embodied for mothers, who can spend approximately 1,800 hours breastfeeding a baby in the first year of life—a schedule with enormous ramifications on one’s intellectual and other pursuits. But breastfeeding mothers aren’t the only women whose Christian intellectual life will almost certainly look different from that of men in otherwise similar circumstances. Yet discussions of the “scandal of the evangelical mind” have been decidedly masculine, as have the suggested solutions.
Intellectual labor has traditionally relied on ample support staff, which historically was heavily gendered. The one doing the intellectual labor was the man, while those providing the necessary support—housework and childcare, but also secretarial work and research assistance—were women. Theologian Karl Barth, who had a wife and a live-in secretary (and likely mistress), is an extreme example of this phenomenon at work. He is, nevertheless, a reminder of the human costs of impressive intellectual output.
This raises the following question: How might evangelical women today, those who are not ETS card–carrying academics, pursue a fruitful and satisfying life of the mind that brings us to know God more deeply? I have three recommendations to make in brief, each for a different audience and moving in order of concentric circles, from the personal level to the local church to evangelical culture at large.
First, for women like me, who hunger for intellectual community but are not part of traditional academia, perhaps the most important advice I can give is this: Find a network of like-minded Christian women whose cultivation of the life of the mind will have practical similarities to your own.
There’s good reason the Inklings, that famous group of writers that included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, continue to fascinate so many of us: It allowed literary giants to influence each other’s writing, read works in progress to each other, and generally cheer each other on. (Well, the last part was true most of the time, at least—except when Tolkien hated Lewis’s Narnia books.)
Of course, the Inklings were a group of male academics who met in a local pub. (Sayers, notably, wasn’t included, though she was a contemporary, a writer, and a friend of Lewis.) But their success shows how dearly those of us pursuing creative intellectual endeavors need community to flourish. For most women, especially for mothers, such community will probably not look like the gatherings of the Inklings. I can’t even manage a coffee shop meeting with anyone for longer than 20 minutes. (Writing at Burger King, however, is a different story—highly recommend.)
In my case, I haven’t found this intellectual network locally, but it organically found me, just as much as I found it, through what was then called Twitter. It’s there that I have connected with several other Christian homeschooling moms who are readers and writers in the margins of their days.
This informal community has allowed us to celebrate every achievement with full knowledge of what it takes to usher an essay or a book to completion with little to no childcare. There is something uniquely encouraging, it turns out, in knowing that you are not alone in your intellectual pursuits.
If you are a poet or writer, find Christian women who write on similar topics. If you are an artist, find other female Christian artists. If you are a musician, find other Christian women who are musicians as well. We can bemoan the disconnected nature of our lives in this digital age, but even tinned fruit is better than nothing.
However, women should not be solely responsible for cultivating these networks and structures necessary for pursuing a theologically robust life of the mind. And so my second piece of advice here is an exhortation to pastors: Encourage the flourishing of women’s life of the mind in your church.
This could look like making sure there are Bible studies or other book studies for women during regular class time slots. Schedule them with your specific congregants in mind: Is there a time when homeschooling moms can attend? What about women working nine to five—or the less predictable hours of service or medical work? What about single mothers? Prioritize offering childcare.
These classes could also be less study-focused and open to women outside of the congregation. In her memoir, All My Knotted-Up Life, the famed women’s Bible teacher Beth Moore describes using her aerobics classes at church as a ministry in the early 1980s. We can rejoice that the aerobics trend is safely dead and buried in all its Lycra-clad ignominy, but we shouldn’t overlook this important point: Moore ultimately saw all classes she taught as a way to teach about Jesus, advancing women’s life of the mind alongside the health of the body.
One caveat must be noted: There’s a danger such gatherings will become primarily social occasions. Half a dozen years ago, when my second child was a baby, I wanted to join a local Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) chapter. I dropped out upon learning that a significant portion of the time at each meeting would be devoted to a craft. I hate crafts with every fiber of my non-crafty being, and I was disappointed that this set-aside time each week, which could have been devoted to something intellectual, was being spent on something decidedly not of the mind.
In retrospect, I should have had a better attitude, and of course socializing has its place. Still, I’ve heard plenty of complaints from other women over the years about the intellectually anemic fare that is too often offered in women’s groups—even women’s Bible studies. I suspect Christian women want to engage in intellectually rigorous study and discussion far more than churchy stereotypes suggest.
This observation connects to my third and final point, which is an exhortation to a more serious change of culture: Evangelicals, just like the rest of Americans today, must recognize that motherhood itself is an intellectually rigorous activity that benefits from—and, really, requires—a robust life of the mind.
Perhaps evangelical culture is suffering from the residual weight of disgraced minister Bill Gothard’s reported advice that college is wasted on women, or maybe, with Americans more broadly, we’re under the influence of the modern professionalization of every aspect of life, including children’s education. Whatever the cause, it seems that too many Americans today find traditional women’s activities, like motherhood and homemaking, to be intellectually worthless.
In a recent panel discussion on motherhood and creative activity, Catholic writer and editor Haley Stewart recalls being told—by a female academic, no less—that motherhood was nothing short of intellectual drudgery, and that “a dog could take care” of Stewart’s 18-month-old.
As a homeschooling mom with a PhD, I beg to differ. And I’m not alone among mothers with advanced degrees who see parenting and, in some cases, homeschooling as beautifully intellectual pursuits. We not only get to teach our children what we know, we also get to cultivate daily curiosity through learning together.
Nor am I alone among Christian women—whether mothers and not, working both in and out of those traditionally female activities—who hunger for more intellectual conversations and more theological instruction than is readily available. Ultimately, we are all theologians, still called to do what the women at the tomb were called to do in Mark 16: Go forth and proclaim the risen Messiah to all who have ears to hear.
Nadya Williams is the author of Cultural Christians in the Early Church. Her next book, Priceless, is under contract with IVP Academic. She is book review editor for Current, where she also edits The Arena blog.