Interview: Sarah Bessey, blogger, author of Jesus Feminist

30 May 2014

'My experience as a woman in the church has been overwhelmingly positive'

Jesus Feminist is an invitation to the life waiting on the other side of our Church's gender debates. To me, it's less a book about Christian feminist theory and more a book about the Kingdom of God, and what it can look like when we are all walking together in wholeness.

When I say "Jesus made a feminist out of me," it also means that Jesus shaped my feminism rather than the other way around.

When I decided to become a disciple of Jesus, it meant that I wanted to make my right-now life the way I believed Jesus would do it. That included my passion and advocacy for women's voices and experiences, healing and justice. It's precisely because I follow Jesus that I want to see God's redemptive movement for women arch towards justice.

Jesus Feminist grew rather organically out of my life in Christ. I grew up in an egalitarian home, with strong, godly parents who loved Jesus with their whole hearts, and we attended small churches in western Canada where women and men were equally active in ministry. In my late teens and early twenties, as I became more aware of the Church as a whole, I became more actively engaged in women's issues within Evangelicalism, which then led me to a more global awareness ,and advocacy of women's issues in the world.

As a writer and blogger, I love to write through my life to figure out what I think and dream and believe about God - as well as the Church, marriage, motherhood, community, all of it.

The book took shape out of my own history as a beloved daughter, in my experiences in the Church as a woman, in my heart for justice and wholeness for God's daughters, my passion for writing out mylife, and, most particularly in my adoration of Jesus, and commitment to live into the Kingdom of God.

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If people read the book, I hope the chief thing they walk away knowing is that they are loved, and they are free.

I have so much respect and love for Christian feminist writers and theorists, academics, and theologians. Everyday armchair theologians like me - the ones who didn't go to seminary, and have a regular sort of a life - are so blessed to have men and women who do the deep trench work here.

I think that the thing that makes me appreciate their work is the thing that sets me apart, perhaps. I'm not a theologian. I'm not an academic. I'm not a theorist. Instead, I'm an everyday follower of Jesus, and a story-teller.

So far the reception has been quite positive. Even people who disagree with where I end up theologically have said that they feel like we have a lot of common ground, and that the book created a space for them to question and learn, without feeling judged or devalued. My heart was really to take a step out of the zero-sum-game rage-tone and engage in the issues in a way that made room for everyone, regardless of where we ended up.

I cherish my place as an outsider to a lot of dominant Evangelicalism for several reasons, but one of them is that my experience as a woman in the Church has been overwhelmingly positive and affirming. I think this is what makes the book a bit of a surprise to people. In many ways, I grew up post-gender debates: these issues have been settled for so long in my own story that I want to tell about how God is moving and transforming out here in the freedom of equality, what life looks like "on the other side".

Of course, when I encountered the bigger Church as an adult, I was shocked that my experience wasn't normative. Isn't everyone? In a way, that is what drove me to figure out what I believed and why: I needed to know if I was wrong. In my research for the book, though, there are a lot of articulated reasons for churches to hold women back: misunderstanding or misapplication of scripture, tradition, fear, cultural conditioning, all of it.

But at the root, I believe it's about power. Jesus is subversive because he turns our world's power structures and household codes, all of it, on its head with his teaching. In Matthew 20, Jesus tells us that, among us, it shall be different. I believe that, as we follow Jesus, we'll follow him right into an upside-down kingdom of love, servanthood, and wholeness among us all.

As a whole, our world has not valued or esteemed women. This is part of why I believe the Church can prophesy the Kingdom of God's ways for men and women.

I am hopeful, because I see change spreading slowly and organically, which to me signifies lasting impact.

I see so much of our disagreements and discussions as an adventure in missing the point. I don't like the whole "you can do this but not this", narrow, nit-picky kind of stuff. I tend to be a bit of a Canadian in that way: I like a bit more fresh air than that.

In many ways, if we can get the starting point right, then the way it plays out will change.

I'm enjoying the conversations around Jesus Feminist; so I'm travelling a small bit to participate in those gatherings. Otherwise, it's just business as usual right now: I'm a stay-at-home mum with three tinies, so life is always full. I'll probably starting working on my second book soon, as well.

We live on the west coast of Canada, just outside Vancouver, British Columbia. But I grew up as a prairie kid in Saskatchewan and Alberta. My husband, Brian, is American, and we've been married for nearly 13 years.

My relationship with the Church has evolved over the years. I went through a period of disengagement with the institutions of the Church, which I write about in the book a bit. But, in the end, I really felt called to intentional Christian community still.

I suppose I'm a bit of a postmodern cafeteria Christian, borrowing traditions and liturgy and experiences across the spectrum. I have found a lot of life in many different expressions of Christianity, but I'm still one of those happy-clappy, Spirit-filled Christians at heart. I've been everything from a pastor's wife to an outsider. Now we're pretty settled in a community church, and we lead a home-group and teach Sunday school. I seethe Church as a lot bigger and borderless these days, and so I find family in a lot of communities and places, too.

I read voraciously and love to learn. Lately, I've been reading a lot of Walter Brueggeman. Old favourites are still Brian McLaren, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L'Engle, Dallas Willard, Carolyn Custis James, Brennan Manning. To be honest, most of my reading happens outside Christian living or theology.

We have a busy and loud household. By the time all the tinies have finished homework, we've cleared the dishes from supper, gotten ready for bed, read their stories, and tucked them into bed, the silence that begins is so lovely to me. Everyone is safe and snug, clean and settled. And now it's time for me to read a book and have a cup of tea.

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We don't do a lot of travel, because our children are young and budgets are tight. We like to explore here, though, since we're in a pocket of Canada, right between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains. It's crazily beautiful here.

I'm happiest when I feel like I'm right in the middle of where I'm supposed to be. That changes often: sometimes it's in a moment with my children or my husband, sometimes it's when I'm preaching or writing, sometimes it's when I'm praying with other women, or when I'm all alone on a walk.

I once heard our pastor say that the same part of us that worries is the part of us that prays. I have been in times when I've worried constantly, without words or thoughts. So I began to pay attention to that, and learn how to pray constantly, or keep my thoughts, fixed there years ago. I still do that - that's the happy-clappy tongues-talker in me, perhaps. I go through seasons of set prayer or praying the hours through Common Prayer, but really I'm almost always praying in some way as an undercurrent through my life.

I think I'd take the silence as my companion. To be honest, the thought of being locked away for a few hours in solitude sounds pretty good! We don't make a lot of room for silence or quiet or solitude - or at least, I don't - and so the thought of a few hours to rest in the presence of God sounds like the right thing to do if I found myself locked in a church.

Sarah Bessey was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Jesus Feminist is published by Darton, Longman & Todd (£10.99 (CT Bookshop £9.90)). Review, page 24

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