Review: Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey

Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey

Authorial intent: To “Lay down our ideas, our neatly organized Bible verses, our carefully crafted arguments,…to really talk about womanhood, the church.” To have a campfire roundtable story-telling evening.

I don’t think she achieves this, other than telling her own story, but I do think she encourages women to have this conversation amongst themselves. And seeing as there is a set of book-club questions at the end, then if I had read it in that context, it would have made more sense.

So who is this book for?

Well, it’s not for me. So who am I? My husband, upon seeing what I was reading, said “That title is perfect for you”. But in reality, I’m someone who finds it easier to claim Feminist than Christian. I don’t attend church because it feels both suffocating and manipulative – but this is my own baggage. I quit attending in high school, and I made it through four years of bible college only going to church a handful of times. This also means that I’ve studied a lot of the texts from the bible, early church and modern day writers. I am a Research Analyst by day and a writer by sometimes nights. I am both detailed oriented, thorough and a rabbit trail chaser. I spend half my time at work chasing down every anomaly so I can explain exactly what’s going on, and I spend half my time writing deleting and then retyping the same word.

I come to the book with a fair amount of knowledge, probably more than who the book is for. I also come with a critical eye because I can’t help it. I see all the things she mentions in passing, and know she could have spent a chapter on each. My notes are full of “I wish she had addressed this, talked about this more, acknowledged this…”. The book feels introductory to me, but I do think it is for some people.

Like my mother.

And who’s she? She’s a homegrown prairie girl, turned church lady, turned main provider. She grew up doing church with her extended family, in cramped front rooms. She got married at 19 with a grade 7 education, to a man with a bad heart. She’s had to pick up the slack when my dad couldn’t work because he was too unhealthy, or got laid off. She continued to work to pay off debt, to put five children through private Christian school. She went back to school in her 40’s to complete her high school education, and then went on to get a college certificate. She’s become an equal in the marriage over time, even if this was not her intent. She critiques my fathers bible study plans and sermons, and taught alongside him in various ministries. She used to wave flags and sing loudly before she left the only church she ever knew to protect her family. She’s a woman who’s a Christian Feminist but would never claim the second part of that label.

It’s also for my father. He’s the person I yelled at and said “Why do you think your sperm gets to determine whether I become a pastor or not?!” when I came home after first term at bible college. He’s also the person who sends his kids job postings for jobs we are completely unqualified for, because he knows we are capable. He is also the one who teases me about feminism, but is proud that I learned how to do all the around-the-house fix-it things from him. It’s for people who don’t understand the word “Feminism”, but are feminists or have raised feminists themselves.

It’s also for them because it plays heavy on emotion, uses a lot of “christianese”, and for people who have memorized all the verses she has alluded to. It won’t convince any non-Christians that Christians can actually be feminist, and it won’t convince non-feminist Christians to become feminist. It will help those with feminist behaviours and beliefs to acknowledge how the label can apply to them.

Best parts of the book?

But the best part of the book (for me) is the Further Reading and Notes. This is where I can find all the meaty books that I want. It is very interesting to me how well read Sarah is, and how gentle this little book turned out to be. I know my gut reaction is to be highly critical, and I want to shove all the texts in front of everyone I know and say “How can you even talk about women in the church it if you haven’t read ALL THE THINGS”. Sarah is much kinder, and makes the idea of a Jesus Feminist approachable by the ordinary, non-bible school-nit-picker.

But you actually want to know about the content.

I first thought her strongest chapters were “Patron Saints, Spiritual Midwives, and ‘Biblical Womanhood’” and “Narrative Reborn”, but when I reread it and forced myself accept the book for what it was, I think there’s a lot of good in here. Her attitude alone teaches me how I could better approach the subject in general conversation. My husband would agree, and say something like “Well I could have told you that you needed to be nicer!’.

In these two chapters are both stories of badass biblical women and birth stories. She brings context to what the description of these women in that time meant, and educates the reader on how important small phrases like “Daughter of Abraham” would have impacted the men listening. I love her storytelling of these biblical women, and her quiet acknowledgment (though I wish she shouted it out loud, repeated it over and over and over IN ALL CAPS) that “patriarchy, subordination and pain are part of the Fall. They were never God’s original intent”(91). And aren’t we always trying to move towards what Gods original intention for humankind was?

But her strongest work is describing just how Jesus’ interactions with women were revolutionary and how important it is to take into context just what those actions meant. (I also appreciate that she does the same thing with Paul’s writing to the early church, as he is often quoted more than Jesus or the gospels when talking about women’s issue in the church).

I also really love reading birth stories (thanks Kim!). I like them because I’ve learned how much faith a woman must have in herself that she is strong and capable, and can finish the task regardless of the surprises thrown at her. She really has to let go, and trust herself, and how important it is for her birth team to support her(whether that’s just her husband and a few strangers in the parking lot, or a doula, midwife and doctor). Isn’t this a perfect picture of the church? Have faith, trust, and find support (I know the analogy only goes so far). I love how she shares her own painful, joyous, amazing and heartbreaking experiences of birth. I hope that she has done the same thing but with her church experiences in her new book, Out of Sorts. I won’t ruin it for you, but you should all run to your local libraries, pick up the book and read her “Narrative Reborn” chapter.

I love that she also acknowledges all the motherly qualities that are missed when only men preach – and how there is a whole lot about God that is missed when we don’t acknowledge the creative, life-giving side of her.

Beefs. Because I can’t help it.

  1. If she was aiming to promote stories of the unheard. I’m not sure she’s achieved her goal. She says “could spend [her] life telling the beautiful stories of ordinary radicals” but instead tells the stories of straight or married women, the already in church circles, or leaves the descriptions too anonymous to determine if they really are an unheard voice, such as LGBTQ+, childless, celibate, divorced, immigrant, or women of colour. While she talks about how the feminist label can apply to people with a variety of beliefs, she only makes a point to acknowledge the existence of pro-life feminists in the Christian tradition, not pro-choice Christians – its an awkward avoidance as to not scare off her reader. In effect it alienates a whole lot of us who are reading the book to see if she’s got tips on being having both strong beliefs about women’s rights and having faith. The book is less of a sharing of a bunch of stories, than bits and pieces of her own story. That being said, I think she could write a great memoir – she promotes only a few stories aside from her own. Not that this is wrong, it’s just doesn’t seem to jive with what she sets out to do in the first chapter.
  1. The lack of interchanging gendering of God. If we’re talking about the creative side of God, why not say “she?” Afraid of losing the reader again? And the extensive use of “Abba” for God is frustrating, as for many women our dads are not good examples of love.
  1. Choice of Canadian content. And I mean one thing in particular. She spends a chapter, “Kingdom Come” on how God’s Kingdom [non-christianese reads: the world as God intended, always strived for but because of sin unattainable. Basically Jesus’ life.] is one of peace and justice, and will treat women equally. She talks about worldwide poverty and quotes UN statistics, but she doesn’t talk about the situation at home. This is a time to use your platform and bring attention to all the missing and murdered indigenous women (#mmiw) in Canada, to talk about the third-world condition of reserves, the overwhelming number of First Nations children in foster care, and all the ways in which we allow cultural genocide to continue in our country.

What really frustrated me about all this, is that in the same chapter she chose a quote from N.T. Wright, “Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.” (p 167). As Canadians, we cannot be ignorant of our language or our history anymore. The problem with this quote is that Canada was colonized by snatching people away from their home while claiming good intentions – “colonization” is not what any version of heaven on earth should look like.

I don’t believe she is ignorant to it, she just chose to leave it out. And I have a hard time understanding how not even one line is about to it. If you can mention abortion in a Christian feminist book, you can mention the Highway of Tears or the Robert Pickton trials. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google it. Or even better, read the Truth & Reconciliation Report, starting with “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future”. Isn’t this what her book is asking the church to do?

</rant>

Final Thoughts: I would buy it for my mom and it belongs in every church library.

And you really should read the TRC (I’m still working through it). Or for something easier to get into, read this essay on Canada’s Missing & Murdered Aboriginal women by Angela Sterritt https://www.opencanada.org/features/movement-rises/

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About definitelynotapoet

View my work in Skirt Quarterly, Untethered, Vagabond Citylit, the Quilliad and Tracer Publishing.
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