We all have our church-lady stories. Here's mine: I knew a woman of Amazonian stature who loudly extolled the virtues of Marabel Morgan's 1973 best-seller, The Total Woman. Her single unforgettable feature was an enormous brown beehive that tapered slightly, like a mushroom cloud. It was an impenetrable structure, seemingly shellacked into place. It repelled bullets, refracted AM radio signals and frightened small children.
My parents, always quick with the sarcasm, dubbed her "Bouffantus Colossus," then threatened my sister and me with bodily harm if we ever let that slip.
Oh, how my mother hated The Total Woman, that relic of the early 1970s, an evangelical reaction to the burgeoning feminist movement. It sold some 4 million copies and topped the nonfiction best-seller list in 1974, beating All the President's Men. In light, cheery prose, Morgan counseled wives to accept their husbands, adapt to them and cultivate sexual excitement in their marriages. My mother read it and remembers the same thing everyone else seems to remember about The Total Woman: Morgan holds up as an example a woman who greeted her hubby at the door wearing nothing but Saran Wrap. (Sound familiar? The concept was lampooned in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes.)
Now B.C. was hardly the pliant wife portrayed in The Total Woman. Neither was my mom. Heck, none of those church ladies were, as far as I could tell. And you know us kids were always watching and scrutinizing.
Though my mom clashed repeatedly with B.C. and her husband, it was all done behind clenched Christian smiles. That hid seething rage.
That's how I remember things. A church lady didn't rock the boat. Above all, she had to preserve the illusion of piety. Every now and then, reality would protrude. My mother taught Sunday school for teenagers, and one morning a boy confided in her that his father, a longtime church member, brutally beat his mother. But such truths were quickly tamped down. We all felt safer curled up inside our illusions.
Lisa Bevere, a 46-year-old evangelical author and speaker who's married to prominent author and speaker John Bevere, knows all about church ladies. When she made a Christian commitment at the age of 21, she entered an evangelical milieu that saw her gender as a problem. Bevere, raised Catholic, didn't know the church protocol of the time, that women were supposed to shut up and make a big show of having perfect Christian marriages and tidy Christian lives.
Bevere told me that she figured it out pretty quick. "They've totally torn away the whole dignity of women in evangelical churches--they've really created a passive-aggressive woman," Bevere says. "We've basically given women no place in the church.
"The feminists have really taken away our place as well, because they have tried to say if you want to be powerful as a woman, be a man," she adds. "Go into the man's world and beat him at his own game. There's this whole vibe that men are enemies. The truth is we've lost what it is to be a powerful woman."
For years now, Bevere has been trying to craft a model of evangelical femininity with greater authenticity. Her latest book, Fight Like a Girl, is a manifesto of sorts; consider it a Total Woman for 2006.
From a woman who surfs and drives 4-wheelers on the Alaskan tundra, even though she lost an eye to cancer at 5. (The schoolkids called her Cyclops.) She's been known to preach in black leather. She's gone on secular radio and told folks that her husband "is getting more sex than Brad Pitt." (The context is amusing: She'd seen a tabloid headline saying that Brad and Jennifer hadn't had sex for two years, or something like that.) She often speaks at conferences for teenagers, and at times during our interview slips into the verbal tics of a 15-year-old girl—dropping lots of "totally"'s and ending her sentences with curlicues that change everything into a question.
Bevere wrote in detail about her broken sexual past in Kissed the Girls and Made Them Cry, one of the few Christian books about sexuality that actually resonates with girls and young women. In public, such as her engagements late last month at Christ for the Nations Institute in southern Dallas, she is unselfconsciously direct, so much so that the wife of a prominent local evangelist took her aside a few years ago and asked, "Why would you go on television and say that you'd tried out for the 'sexual gymnastics team' at the University of Arizona?"
Well, why not? It was true. "That was me," Bevere says. "And I don't care. I'm not there anymore. I don't even really remember who that person was."
Bevere's honesty makes a connection with young women. Because they've already rejected their parents' Christian notions of gender as a fraud. "We have a generation of young girls coming up that are saying, hey, we don't like the way you look. We don't like your Christian marriages. They want to do life with a guy, they just don't want to have no life."
They dig the preacher in black leather, though. "They love it that we are individuals yet we adore each other," Bevere says of her and her husband, who got their start in ministry in Dallas but now live with their four boys in the evangelical mecca of Colorado Springs. "We're complementary to each other, but we've maintained our uniqueness. John loves women that are strong. He gets it that strong women don't make weak men."
The Total Woman generation didn't get that. It feared a woman's strength. Traveling around the world as an evangelist, Lisa Bevere has observed Christian women who've been stripped of their character by a church that viewed women as a problem—conniving Jezebels whose power, if loosed, would destroy everything the church had built. Those women, she said, eventually die. "They shrink within themselves, their gifts die, their contribution dies, and the man—he's not challenged to flourish," Bevere says. "And the kids—they hate the way their dad treats their mom, and they also really resent the mom for not standing up for them or for herself. So they begin to think women are weak."
Now Bevere's views of womanhood don't fit either side of the debate about gender roles in the evangelical church. One side is egalitarian, adopting as its rallying cry Paul's statement that there is neither "Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." The other side recoils at the influence of feminism in the church, calling evangelicals back to a traditional understanding of femininity where women's lives are shaped around their husbands and children. That call, harsh as it sounds to secular ears, is balanced by a strong exhortation for men to cherish their wives and take financial responsibility for their families.
Each side tends to wield its biblical texts like bludgeons.
Bevere stands on middle ground. Men and women are unique, she says, but they've lost their place and purpose because of the fall of Adam. "They knew they were created for dominion," Bevere writes of Adam and Eve, "but they forgot why. Grasping for what was lost, they began to misuse their strengths, and used their dominion against rather than for each other. Essentially, the fall of man originated the battle of the sexes...the wrestling began."
Both fallen masculinity and fallen femininity are ugly things, but the church hasn't addressed them with equal emphasis. "We view the feminine through the fallen," Bevere says, "but we don't tend to view the masculine through the fallen. If we're going to say that women are always bent toward manipulation and control, then we need to say men are always bent toward domination and betrayal. Because that's what Adam did."
Because of Jesus' death on the cross—his abolition of the "curse" of sin—we're able to reclaim our place in Eden through faith, Bevere says. We're able to reverse the fall, at least in a spiritual sense. Bevere says she's lived that out through 24 years of a marriage that was sometimes characterized by power struggles. The Beveres saw the flaws in the ideals of masculinity and femininity they'd been offered in the evangelical church, but they had to hack out their own path to something more authentic.
"The key thing to navigating gender is to ask, 'Are we under the fall?'" Bevere says. If not, if one believes Jesus has broken the power of original sin—and the enmity between the sexes that it brought—"then we have the ability to restore male-female relationships, parent-children relationships and even the environment.
"Christians have really preached a very marginal percentage of the gospel," she says. "We have only preached that Jesus came to save the lost, instead of Jesus came to save that which was lost."
By sharing "dominion"—the original purpose of man and woman before the fall—and by respecting each other's unique strengths, men and women can inhabit marriages free of enmity. Men would use their God-given strength for "truth and justice," Bevere writes, and women would use their "powers of insight and influence for healing."
This is only the briefest sketch of Bevere's message; get a copy of her book and do it justice. You can buy it here.
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The bottom line, she says, is that God loves women. He doesn't fear them.
Bevere had an epiphany when she spoke at one of Bishop T.D. Jakes' functions in Dallas a few years ago. Afterward, Jakes and his wife invited her to be their guest for the Sunday-morning service. She walked in that morning and was "blown away by the massiveness of it all—I live in Colorado, and we don't do church with hats."
But these church ladies in their elegant hats, so traditional in appearance, were different. They had strength and liberty. "The presence of God was there," Bevere says. "I heard the Holy Spirit say to me, 'See how I bless those who bless my daughters?' [Jakes'] whole ministry has flourished because of Woman Thou Art Loosed." --Julie Lyons
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