Below is a review of The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr.
Do you agree with Hick-Keatons assessment of Barr’s book?
How about books assessment that evangelical Christianity’s view of the role of women is human-created rather than deity-designed?
In The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Barr argues that evangelical Christianity’s Biblical Womanhood is built rather than revealed, human-created rather than deity-designed. “Rather than patriarchy being God-ordained,” she writes, “history suggests that patriarchy has a human origin: civilization itself.” She historicizes modern evangelical insistence on women’s subordination as a product of socio-cultural factors and institutional changes through the centuries, tracing how such movements as the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution placed constraints on opportunities for women. From her arsenal of expertise in medieval Christianity, Barr offers alternative visions of women’s leadership that could have become the norm in her tradition but did not.
Barr is certainly right that patriarchy is socially constructed and not a given or natural framework for organizing society. But one of the tasks of the historian, I think, is to make visible the work that has gone into making the contingent seem natural.
Yet when it comes to the sacred anchor of Barr’s evangelical tradition, the Bible, Barr pulls her punches. The Bible, particularly Paul’s writings within it, manages to escape critical analysis. Christianity “rightly” practiced and the Bible “rightly” read are both, for Barr, anti-patriarchal. Barr reinterprets, for example, the so-called “household codes” in the New Testament, which uphold patriarchal order of man over wife (and master over enslaved), by attributing their oppressive hierarchies not to Jesus-followers but to the “fallen” world around them.
Barr’s idealized Christianity and its egalitarian Bible serve less as a description of historical reality than as a carrot with which to court disenchanted evangelicals and as a stick with which to hit her conservative opponents. Barr casts Christianity uncritically as transhistorical, as something that can exist unsullied and unchanging outside of human culture.
Barr’s methodology invites scrutiny because she lets the Bible—and therefore those who defer to it—get away with, well, patriarchy. Barr saves Paul from himself and Jesus from historicization, suggesting unpersuasively with a series of “what ifs” that both first-century men were advocates of women’s full participation and were therefore anti-patriarchal. In this, Barr ignores several generations of critical feminist biblical scholarship that has shown that patriarchy goes all the way back to the origins of Christianity.
The purpose of Barr’s history is ultimately to suggest that what is made can be broken; and I agree, it can. But, sympathetic as I am to her aims, I want to push harder, to take the historicizing to its logical conclusion. What would it mean to wrestle with the possibility that both the Bible and the God evangelicals claim it speaks for are patriarchal to the core? An archive of ancient literature shaped by political, socio-cultural, and institutional factors, the Bible developed in conjunction with patriarchy.
It’s apparent to this reader that her history-writing in this book is in part her own history and is itself risky. But it’s also costly—and we must pay attention to who bears the costs. Barr’s analysis removes from view the possibility that evangelical Christianity might be irredeemably patriarchal precisely because of its biblicism.