Enough Already

I review hundreds of Christian books a year—skimming and scanning them to see what’s trending and what might be beneficial to share with our readers. These come from every publisher imaginable, and many of the works that cross my desk are solid. Writers are pushing into new territory, making biblically-sound arguments, and faithfully teaching the Word of God. The hot topic du jour changes, of course. One year, brokenness was on everyone’s mind. Being “messy” and “real” had a heyday too. The Enneagram is still going strong. Perennial topics like grace, peace, and love are never in short supply. And the leadership books…oh, the leadership books. Have mercy.

However, since I began this work seven or eight years ago, one thing has remained constant: Women’s books are pastel. And I mean that both in terms of visual design and substance.

These are two books I recently received in the mail. What do you notice? What do they have in common? Pleasing robin’s egg blue covers with pink accents. Feminine font. Encouraging titles. And flowers. Always flowers.

I read a few pages of each of these offerings and promptly put them on the giveaway pile at the office. The first reason is because we need books that apply to both genders and a wide variety of ages, and these are specifically aimed a female audience in a certain stage of life. The second is because the message of each is very self-focused, and we need writers who can speak on topics that pertain to the church as whole.

My gripe is not with these two publications in particular, but the overall market for books aimed at Christian women. I did a quick search on Amazon looking for top sellers, and here’s what I came up with.

Each cover (save three) is decorated with flowers, leaves, and vines. And the ones that don’t Make use of other common visuals—a feather and a butterfly (which symbolize freedom or lightness) and a pair of hipster casual tennis shoes (being messy or real). Ladies, I guess we never get tired of taking pictures of our feet, do we?

Perhaps this is my personal preference showing as I’m not a fan of overly-feminine things, but I feel like these covers say a great deal more about the books’ intended audience than they do about what’s inside the works themselves. The message I’m getting isn’t “Drink deeply from Scripture,” “Combat what’s sinful in yourself,” or even “Renew your mind.” It’s “Be soothed,” “Love yourself,” and “Stop trying so hard to be perfect.”

Now, I will say that several of these are Bible studies, which is a far cry better than a first-person book that uses Scripture as a reference. However, to be honest, I’ve picked up many a women’s study over the years hoping to find something challenging and convicting, something that compels me to look at God’s Word (and myself) differently. And so many times, I’ve come away feeling disappointed.

Having never read any of these books, I can’t speak about them in particular. However, most of the Bible studies I’ve tried just aren’t deep enough. They’re too focused on how I feel about a passage from the Bible or how it speaks to my experience. Call me crazy, but if the goal is to die to self, to crucify my flesh with its passions and desires, to decrease so that he might increase, my feelings and experience don’t enter into it at all.

John’s Gospel ends with as clear (and tantalizing) a closing sentence as any in the Bible: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31). Not “that you may feel like God loves you” or “that you may feel he’s your Savior.” It’s that you may believe and, by believing, you may live.

I don’t know if women continue to choose these books because it’s what they truly want (or think they should want) or if they’re afraid of taking on something more substantive. But I am painfully aware of just how many books are being marketed to Christian women and what they contain. We are being well and truly shortchanged.

One of the best-selling new non-fiction books of the decade—Rachel Hollis’ Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be—is the natural and obvious outcome of this trend. 1.6 million copies of her work found their way into women’s hands in 2018. Its message? According to Hollis herself, “You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are. That’s the takeaway.”

“What sets this book apart is — this sounds so lame to say—is my voice,” Hollis told the AP. “I’m not an expert. I’m not a guru. Anything I’ve ever done, the work I’ve done, has always been like your girlfriend telling you what worked for her.” That’s what women are paying to hear, and the thinnest veneer of Jesus imaginable makes them think they’re reading something of eternal value. Both Alisa Childers and Laura Turner have written outstanding reviews pointing out the shortcomings of and the dangers inherent in Girl, Wash Your Face, so I won’t belabor the point by adding my two cents. However, one line from Childers’ review is relevant here.

“I’ll be honest,” she writes. “Reading this book exhausted me. It’s all about what I can be doing better and what I’m not doing good enough. How to be better at work, parenting, and writing. How to be less bad at cardio, sex, and you know, changing the world.”

So many flowery books about peace and balance. So many books about how we are enough and need to stop the crazy-making attempts at human perfection. And yet Hollis’ book—which encourages us to do more and try harder because, dadgummit, we’re the captains of our ships and the mistresses of our own destinies—is flying off the shelves. We’re consuming contrary messages, neither of which will ever soothe. Instead, we’re left anxious and troubled about many things, forgetting we can choose the good portion.

There are topics like cosmology, pneumatology, Christology, soteriology, and eschatology to study, and books about them aren’t in short supply. So why do we consistently settle for anything less? Why are we all so concerned with finding peace here on earth (and in ourselves) when Jesus clearly tells us, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword….And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:34, 38-39)?

I firmly believe that women are capable of serious theological study. We are created in God’s image, gifted with minds to explore everything from hallelujah to the hypostatic union. It’s time to leave our Pinterest-perfect faith quests behind and start demanding more of Christian publishers…and ourselves.

Blue On Red: The Women of “The Handmaid’s Tale”

“Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” — Matthew 20:22 (KJV)

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We’re now four episodes into Hulu’s marvelous adaptation The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and the show is hitting me hard in ways both expected and surprising. For instance, I had no doubt that systematic, institutionally-endorsed rape would be disturbing on a whole host of levels, but I’m actually seeing the sinister aspects of Scrabble, macaroons, and Latin primers.

There is much to explore in this show, but one thing I’ve found particularly compelling is the interplay between two groups of “legitimate” women in Gilead’s hierarchy: the Wives and the Handmaids. The Wives are taking quite a bit of heat from viewers (and rightly so). One author calls them the true “gender traitors”; another says they are “cruelly complacent.” And it is impossible to deny either of those descriptions when several of the scenes involve Serena Joy clutching cruelly onto Offred’s wrists during “the ceremony.”

Breathe. Hold. Push.
But the scene that throws this relationship into sharpest relief happens in episode two, “Birth Day.” I’ll give you a brief run down. In one room of a palatial estate, the Wives sit around Naomi, the Wife of Ofwarren’s Commander. She is in labor, but hers is of the faux variety.

Dressed in an elegant white nightgown, she reclines against a nest of pristine pillows on ivory carpet, sunshine streaming through the windows. A harp plays soothing music in the background. The Wives, in their standard blue attire, encourage her through her false pains—the only experience of childbirth she can ever have since she is sterile—all the while drinking tea from prim china cups, feasting on nibbles, and quietly repeating the word “breathe.”

The rhythmic chanting is also going on upstairs, but the words “hold” and “exhale” are added to the mix. Here, the handmaid Ofwarren (A.K.A. Janine), assisted by several of the dismal brown Aunts and a passel of red-clad Handmaids, is doing the real teeth-gritting work of birth—complete with the screaming, panting, and valor it requires.

Offred, via voiceover, sums it up perfectly: “There’s a smell coming from that room, something primal. It’s the smell of dens, of inhabited caves. It’s the smell of the plaid blanket on the bed where the cat gave birth before she was spayed. It’s the smell of genesis.”

Despite the vast number of people in the room, we recognize the moment for what it is. And that makes it one of the most “normal” scenes in the show…until, well, things get very weird and very Gileadean again.

When the time comes to push, the Wife is brought in to experience the moment of birth. She sits behind Ofwarren in a birthing chair—an echo of the ceremony that made this baby possible in the first place—and mimes the moment until the child is born. There’s an instant of respectful silence until Aunt Lydia pronounces the baby to be a healthy girl.

All the women celebrate, and for a fleeting second, there’s harmony. Then the cord is cut and the girl is wrapped up in a clean blanket, but rather than be handed back to the woman who carried her and brought her into the world, she is given to Naomi who has settled into her “rightful place”—the bed Ofwarren previously occupied. As far as the Wives and Aunts are concerned, Naomi has always been there. The birth mother doesn’t exist.

As they coo and carry on over the little miracle, the Handmaids are left to look on from a distance and care for Ofwarren who sobs into her hands. In a moment of solidarity (that also bears a striking resemblance to another, less lovely group scene in the first episode), they wrap arms around the poor woman to comfort her.

It’s very easy to hate the Wives here. After all, they’ve done none of the sweating, bleeding, or suffering. They’ve sacrificed nothing for this moment—only swooped in to capture the prize that makes it all worth it. Yes, they are part of the evil system that made this all possible. Yes, they are cruel and capricious and oppressive. Yes, they are preying on those weaker than they. But—and hear me out here—they are victims too in a way. Like the Handmaids, they endure the ceremony designed by men. They live within the tight confines of the caste system. They feel fear, loss, and shame.

In the hierarchy, they have greater power. Yet when it comes to childbirth—the great pinnacle of achievement for women in this dictatorship—they are powerless. They can do nothing to make themselves (or their husbands) fertile. For that reason and others, theirs is a hollow existence, and all they can do is watch and yearn and covet. Say what you will, but that’s a lousy place to be.

What’s Yours Is Mine
Unlike the women of Gilead, I never needed to give birth. I likely never will. I am, however, a mother of two young boys my husband and I adopted from the foster care system. I didn’t go through the months of pain and suffering it took to bring them into being. The State gave them to me.

It must be acknowledged that my sons’ birth mother made poor choices. She didn’t see to their welfare and, at times, even put them in danger. Despite multiple opportunities to change, she did not. She has yet to do so. And yet…

Once the adoption was finalized, we applied for updated birth certificates, ones that show their new names. When they arrived, our lawyer advised me to check over everything and make sure all the spellings were correct and the dates accurate. That’s when I saw something that left me dumbfounded. In the section labeled “mother,” my name was written. My birthdate. My address at the time of the delivery. My state of birth.

All evidence of their biological mother is gone.

Her name and information is buried in court records and electronic details, but as far as this piece of legally binding paperwork is concerned, she’s a ghost.

At each stage of the adoption process, I never lost sight of her. I always reminded myself that my good days—ones where the legal system did its job and brought the kids one step closer to being ours forever—were likely her worst.

I didn’t “steal” her children as Naomi and the Wives did, but some tiny part of me understands their joy. I have children to love and care for, to raise and celebrate. Their base hits in little league are mine. Their science fair wins and good report cards. I’m the one they run to now saying “Mama!” with their little arms outstretched. And while I relish every moment of it, a piece of me knows it came with a price.

So no, I can’t fully hate the Wives though they are petty, heartless creatures. In some ways, I even pity them. Their children and mine became ours as a result of a broken world, one filled with hate, heartache, and sin. But thankfully, a better day is coming—not in the form of a bloody coup, but in the One, the pioneer of our salvation who drank the cup of suffering and died to bring many adopted sons and daughters to glory.