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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Review of "Radical Womanhood: Feminine Faith in a Feminist World"

Like the fiery red stiletto on its front cover, Carolyn McCulley’s latest book, “Radical Womanhood: Feminine Faith in a Feminist Culture,” is provocative, bold, and powerfully feminine.

If you are like me, the term “radical” may conjure up an array of connotations from “political extremist” to “totally gnarly” in the 1980’s sense. However, McCulley’s use of the word “radical” as applied to Biblical womanhood is summed up fittingly by this line in her book:

To live according to Biblical principles today requires women to be bold enough to stand against philosophies and strongholds that seek to undermine God’s Word and His authority. (p. 29)

As McCulley suggests, the concept of what constitutes a “Biblical woman” in our day has been increasingly shaped by feminist thought rather than by the words of Scripture. Accordingly, McCulley asserts that truly living as a Biblical woman (by Scriptural standards) is radical because it stands in stark contrast to cultural and historical assumptions that are deeply embedded in many of us. Today, Biblical femininity is obscured by our culture, our own deceitful hearts, and even by churches. What does the Word of God say about this, and how did we get so lost? McCulley tackles these questions, armed with an arsenal of Scripture and an impressive amount of research. Interspersed through out the book are the compelling personal stories of real women who have sinned against God and others, been sinned against, and have experienced a redeemed view of what it means to be a Biblical woman.

McCulley begins her book with a personal account of her own experience as a non-Christian feminist and later as a young Christian. As she reflects, her beliefs about femininity were gradually transformed through reading God’s Word and receiving Bible teaching at her church. In this process, the Holy Spirit started to reveal to her concepts (such as “servant leadership” of husbands and “submission” of wives described in Ephesians 5) that contradicted her previously long-held views of masculinity and femininity. McCulley beautifully describes the fruit of this epiphany in her heart:

Slowly, it began to dawn on me that the Bible was not presenting just a new set of rules for successful relationships or for a peaceful life. It was presenting an entirely new game—with radically different goals for victory. Winning was living a life that glorified God. Winning was growing in humility. Winning was trusting God and serving others. Winning was cultivating the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control (Galatians 5:22-23). Winning was growing in Christlikeness.

All of my previous feminist philosophies resulted in merely kicking at the darkness, expecting it would bleed daylight. But Scripture says that it is by God’s light that we see light (Psalm 36:9). The light of God’s Word showed me truth. What I thought was right and true did not hold up to Scripture. Human observation and psychology only point out the problem—proud women spar with men they deem to be weaker and not worthy of respect—but offered no credible solution to the tension between the sexes. I didn’t need to reconcile my pantheon of inner goddesses, I needed to repent of my sin. (p. 26)

Refreshingly, this book is not about politics. Neither does McCulley cater to extra-Biblical legalisms that can characterize the concept of womanhood in some churches. (I love this quote from p. 29: “Biblical womanhood is not a one-size-fits all mold. It’s not about certain dress styles, Jane Austen movies, tea parties, quiet voices, and exploding floral patterns… or whatever stereotype you are picturing right now.”) McCulley concedes that feminism arose not merely out of the sinful rebellious desires of women, but also because of the sins of men:

Men do sin. They can diminish women’s accomplishments and limit women’s freedoms for selfish reasons. Some men sexually assault women. Some men abuse their wives and children. Many men degrade women through pornography. Feminism didn’t arise up because of fabricated offenses…it is understandable, humanly speaking, why this movement did emerge. (p. 26-27)

McCulley even expressly acknowledges that there have been some great strides to come out of the feminist movement in correcting serious inequities against women. Still, she asserts, that it is vital to understand the ways that feminism has negatively affected women. McCulley undertakes this by tracing historic landmarks in the development of modern feminist thought and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that feminist theory has displaced a more Biblical understanding of what it means to be a woman in our society.

In Chapter 2, McCulley describes how “feminism came to identify men as the chief problem of women” (p. 31). To illustrate her point, McCulley delves into the lives and philosophies of three prominent feminists: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Simone de Beauvoir, and Betty Friedan. McCulley then walks the reader through what Scripture says is the chief problem of women—sin. After reviewing Genesis 3, McCulley concludes:

Sin warps everything, including the good that God has designed in being a man or a woman. Women sin against men, and men sin against women, and everyone sins against God and falls short of His standard of holiness and perfection. Sin is the reason men have oppressed women and women have usurped men. Sin is the reason for the jealousy, selfish ambition, disorder and every vile practice that characterizes false wisdom. Sin is the reason we need a Savior…As a movement, feminism arose because women were being sinned against. I think that is a fair argument. But feminism also arose because women were sinning in response. That’s a classic human problem: Sinners tend to sin in response to being sinned against.

The glorious hope we have is that Christ came to rescue us from the spiral of sin and sinful response. Only the gospel can accurately diagnose the issues on both sides and offer both the good news of forgiveness for our sins and the restoration of our relationship first with God and then with each other. This is true liberation for women… and for men. (p. 46-47).

Next, McCulley guides the reader through different areas in which history and culture have warped a Biblical understanding of: headship and submission, being a “helpmate,” homemaking, and motherhood. One of my favorite descriptions in her book is in regard to a wife’s submission to her husband, which McCulley describes as being built on “the charge to live a life of love as an imitator of God” and she reminds us of the powerful truth that “submission is part of the divine character of the Trinity”. She then talks about the beauty of being a “helpmate” as Scripture calls wives to be to their husbands and how the beauty of this role has been obscured by cultural ideals that devalue humility and sacrificial love, both of which are qualities that are esteemed and commanded by Scripture. She next discusses what Scripture says about a woman’s responsibility to her home and traces the historical developments that have eroded our understanding of the significance of home life, to the extent that homemaking is now undervalued or even mocked in our society. Next, McCulley describes the effects of historical and cultural developments on motherhood, which has brought us to a place where children often do not get the care they need, where women find themselves juggling multiple (and often competing) roles in addition to motherhood, and where young mothers are often not adequately equipped by mentors before them.

After laying out these points, McCulley directs the reader to the logical effect of a culture that demeans the beautiful calling and essence of Biblical femininity. She calls this the “raunch culture rip-off” where women are more undervalued than ever and particularly where women have been damaged by the effects of this culture on their sexuality. In this chapter, she examines pop culture and history in the last few decades, which instead of liberating women, has left women vulnerable to objectification and emotional and physical harm.

At this point, you might be wondering whether McCulley blames the distorted view of Biblical womanhood on “the world,” making this an “us” verses “them” scenario. She absolutely does not. I think this is clear throughout her book, but it is particularly clear in the final chapter. In this chapter, McCulley traces historical developments within the church to help assess how churches have come to redefine the clear teaching of Scripture about sexuality and gender roles:

There are, at least in my opinion, at least three reasons for this controversy. One is that, within the church, we have forgotten that the role of leaders is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12). We have become consumers within the church, requiring professional service of pastors to serve us—rather than becoming a mobilized body of servants to care for each other and those outside of the church. When the church is operating biblically, everyone is needed for the purpose of ministry, not just the “professional class”. Another reason is our celebrity culture: whoever is in the position of speaking publicly is deemed to have more worth than the one who is serving quietly behind the scenes—the opposite of what Jesus taught (Matthew 20:25-27). So if there is any restriction in the public role, it is seen as inherently wrong because everyone ought to be able to have a shot at it, even if the Bible makes it clear that only a few are gifted and qualified to lead the church (1 Timothy 3). The third reason is the influence of feminism on church life and theology, which is the focus of this chapter (chapter 8). (p. 188)

While “Radical Womanhood” was written for women by the author’s own account, it would still be a fascinating and helpful read for anyone with an interest in feminist history in general, or for anyone who is interested in how feminism has affected the church. However, Christian women will be particularly served in reading this book. The book demonstrates how feminist thinking has pervaded the way we view ourselves, the world, and even Scripture itself—and none of us are immune to this. McCulley’s book reasons with us, lovingly calling us back to the glorious truths articulated in God’s perfect Word.

The book is available for purchase here:

Carolyn McCulley’s blog is available here:

1 comment:

Heather said...

Great review Bina! This sounds like a very interesting book and one I will put on my "to read" list. Thanks!