I sat down to write a post about the things I learned in July, and then I realized they are mostly related to WordPress coding (boring), so I wrote this little manifesto instead.
On the cusp of puberty, I attended purity conferences. If you’re not familiar with the concept, these are conferences where father-daughter teams speak to young women about the merits of courtship before participants break out into small groups to learn feminine skills like card-making and flower arrangement. No wonder I was confused about biblical femininity as a kid.
If I had to define it based on the books I read and the conferences I attended from ages twelve to sixteen, I’d say this:
A biblical woman is modest. She dresses in a way that emphasizes her femininity but never her sexuality (what?). She serves quietly and faithfully in her community and eventually in her marriage where her role is characterized by submission. Bonus points are available to women with home-making skills and musical aptitudes. While a biblical woman is welcome, say, on a church worship team, there is a fuzzy, situationally-dependent list of church leadership activities she can’t participate in.
Of all the themes I just described, the dominant one was modesty. Talks invariably focused on my responsibility to protect my Christian brothers from stumbling with the unspoken admission that jean skirts were the answer. My sweet, compliant adolescent self organized her wardrobe accordingly.
The Problem with Modesty
By the time I got to college, I’d begun to reject the jean skirt model. I got the confirmation I needed during a Q&A in my dorm with the RD’s husband, Dan. The girls on my hall had been invited to anonymously submit questions for Dan and a handful of the questions focused on defining modesty. He took a question about yoga pants, and I’ll never forget his answer. He said, “You are not responsible for another man’s lust. It’s his choice, not yours.” I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of relief as I processed his comments.
Whenever I tell that story, people try to caveat Dan’s statement. Trust me, I’m very aware that I can contribute positively or negatively to a man’s struggle with lust. But at the end of the day, Dan was right. I am not responsible for someone else’s choice. If modesty is the crux of biblical womanhood, then my body is just as much an object as it is when it’s sexualized by Hollywood.
Unfortunately, this lesson was reinforced my sophomore year at college, when a guy from my brother floor used a watch-camera to secretly record over a dozen of my friends in their private showers and bathrooms before publishing the videos online. The night he was arrested by law enforcement, I collapsed on our little IKEA couch and sobbed. I told God I didn’t sign up for this. I didn’t ask to be a commodity—and if that’s what it meant to be a woman, I wanted to quit.
Saying Yes to Jesus
It’s only in the last year that I’ve begun to feel I’m able to articulate an answer to the question: What does it mean to live out my calling to love God with everything that I am as a woman?
For me, it started with Mary. There’s a tapestry depiction of Mary hanging in the chancel at All Souls. When I serve in the altar party, I find myself watching her during the service. She is, after all, a prototype of the Christian—bringing the incarnate Christ to the world in obedience to God. I’d been watching Mary with fascination for months when I came across a poem about her during catechesis. Annunciation by Denise Levertov describes the moment when Mary assented to bear Christ in her womb. My favorite stanza comes at the end of the poem:
She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
opened her utterly.
I’ve come back to this poem over and over again. This isn’t even the first time I’ve written about it. I love Leverov’s choice of the word consent because it’s active. It emphasizes Mary’s freedom—she is a participant in the decision. “Behold,” she says, “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be to me as you have said.” Mary is the ultimate example of biblical femininity not because of how she dressed or because of how she navigated her relationship with Joseph, but because she said yes to Jesus.
On Father’s day, I was sitting through a sermon on biblical manhood while back home in Michigan. During the service, I texted my friend Kate and asked her, “If you had to define biblical femininity to an atheist, what scripture would you go to and what would you say?”
Kate texted back that day and took me to the Magnificat. Her response was such a beautiful exposition on Mary that I asked if I could share it here. (Also, please just take a moment to appreciate the fact that this was an off-the-cuff text. I can’t believe I have friends who are this cool.) This is what she wrote:
Mary responds to very troubling news with openness to God’s plan and submission to it even though it has the potential to wreak havoc on her personal life. Our role as Christian women is to bear Christ joyfully and no matter the cost. I love that Mary puts her own story into the context of God’s redemptive narrative. She does not act as if this will be easy, but she also does not dwell on the impossibility of her situation. And Elizabeth does the same thing: in the midst of a great personal victory, she focuses on how momentous Mary’s news is in the light of redemptive history. Of course she celebrates the victory and gift of her own child, but her greatest celebration is for the faithfulness of God in his promises to Israel. Both of these women are wives, but they do not define their lives by their wife-hood (either in idolizing their husbands or in fighting for supremacy over them). The focus of the story is squarely on how these women respond to the Lord’s call on their lives. And that is what biblical femininity is about. It’s not about the egalitarian/complementarian controversy or about getting the best of a patriarchal culture or women being oppressed. It is about women being aware of and open to the work of the Lord in their own lives and in the lives of others—living intensely individual and personal lives, made all the more beautiful by the knowledge that they are a tiny but exquisite part in the story of God’s work in the world because God dwells in them.
This is the definition I’ve been grasping at for so long. As I’ve reflected on it, I’ve realized that these are the women I’ve found at All Souls—women responding with consent to God’s call—day in and day out—in intensely individual and personal ways.
So I want to say thank you to all the women who have informally mentored me over the last five years. There are so many of you—but especially to Henny, Brita, Jennifer, Anise, Kathy, Sarah, and Jennie—thank you! I am so grateful for your faithful example and influence. Watching the way you live out your love for Christ gives me courage to say “yes” to Jesus in my own life every day.