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Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul
by John and Stasi Eldredge
Nelson, 224 pages, $14.99

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine
by Sue Monk Kidd
HarperOne, 272 pages, $13.95

Chasing Sophia: Reclaiming the Lost Wisdom of Jesus
by Lilian Calles Barger
Jossey-Bass, 256 pages, $18.95

Four decades ago, after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique diagnosed suburban housewives with the “problem that has no name,” the prescription for their existential angst seemed straightforward and secular: Women should swap dishes and diapers for ­briefcases and bullhorns. They must leave the “comfortable concentration camp” of bourgeois domesticity and find in the professions and political activism the fulfillment that had eluded them in home and hearth.

Many women followed this advice only to discover that their inner restlessness persisted despite decades of professional success and political ­victories. As the women’s movement was losing its youthful vigor and mainstream appeal, America’s pop-spirituality boom began attracting spiritually parched feminists and their fellow travelers. The more radical among them took up Wicca and goddess worship, while a far larger number”who believed in the equality of the sexes but rejected militant feminism”began seeking a way to reconcile traditional religious beliefs with feminist egalitarianism and cultivate a uniquely feminine approach to faith.

Their search has been profitable, at least for booksellers. Titles blending spirituality and women’s issues now crowd the bestseller list of the Christian Booksellers Association and the religion shelves of Borders and Barnes & Noble. From Confronting Jezebel and Redeeming Eve to Every Woman’s Battle and Lies Women Believe , each proposes to name and cure the inner emptiness that ails the modern woman. There are books for The Invisible Woman , The Confident Woman , The Worn Out Woman , even The Princess Within. Among the most popular is the recently rereleased Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul , a bestseller that originally debuted in 2005.

Married evangelical-ministry partners John and Stasi Eldredge wrote Captivating as a companion to John Eldredge’s bestselling 2001 book, Wild at Heart , which counseled Christian men to reclaim authentic masculinity and direct their penchant for risk-taking to the service of God and their families. Writing for women, the Eldredges urge their readers to recognize hidden feminine longings to be romanced, to participate in a great adventure, and to manifest beauty to the world. In a breezy summary of the Genesis creation accounts, the authors assert the complementarity of the sexes and their shared mission “to be fruitful and conquer and hold sway” in the world.

The Eldredges devote most of their book to explaining and defending intrinsic differences between the sexes”differences of personality and temperament explained with ubiquitous references to fairy tales, rock ballads, and silver-screen romances. The authors encourage women to recover and indulge their girlhood dreams of starring in a grand love story and to find the love they seek in the arms of their true bridegroom, Jesus Christ.

Though they employ sentimental appeals that often draw on clichés of femininity, the Eldredges take pains to prove that their defense of a fixed feminine nature does not reduce women to doormats or wilting violets. To make their point, they laud boldness, bravery, and initiative in describing virtuous Christian women. The first chapter opens with the story of a hazardous river-rafting trip in which the family’s survival depended on Stasi Eldredge’s physical strength. The eleventh chapter celebrates such “warrior princesses” as Joan of Arc, Eowyn of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Mary of Nazareth, describing them as “wise, cunning, strong, beautiful, courageous, victorious, and very present .” Indeed, in their attempt to prove that following Christ need not confine women to stereotypical roles, the Eldredges wind up reinforcing the idea that traditionally manly virtues count more than the virtues of compassion, humility, and selflessness traditionally associated with women.

Such distortions are perhaps an occupational hazard in the field of Christian self-help writing, a genre that esteems twelve-step action plans, self-sufficiency, and self-fulfillment above self-emptying, self-sacrifice, and surrender. Despite its flaws, Captivating conveys some timeless spiritual truths about the call to communion between men and women, and between the human person and God. Yet the book, like so many others in its genre, gives only perfunctory and partial answers to the more vexing questions about women and religion today.

Those questions are the springboard for Sue Monk Kidd’s The Dance of the Dissident Daughter , a spiritual memoir that chronicles Kidd’s journey from her Southern Baptist roots, through her career in Christian self-help writing, and on to her feminist awakening and rebirth as a neopagan goddess worshipper. First released to critical acclaim in 1996 and recently rereleased in a special anniversary edition, the book seems almost quaint now that New Age spirituality permeates popular culture and many corners of the Church.

In elegant prose that foreshadows her later success as a bestselling novelist ( The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair ), Kidd begins her story with a tale sadly familiar to any woman. While shopping at the drugstore where her fourteen-year-old daughter worked, Kidd spotted her daughter kneeling on the floor, stocking a bottom shelf with toothpaste. Two middle-aged men strolled down the aisle. Peering down at Kidd’s daughter, one man laughed as the other cracked, “Now that’s how I like to see a woman”on her knees.” Kidd writes: “Standing in the next aisle, I froze. I watched the expression that crept into my daughter’s eyes as she looked up. I watched her chin drop and her hair fall across her face. Seeing her kneel at these men’s feet while they laughed at her subordinate posture pierced me through.”
The experience crystallized something inside her, Kidd says, cementing a shift to a “feminine spiritual consciousness” that had begun several years earlier. She had started to question the restricted role she played in her church, the rigid hierarchy of man-woman-child that she had learned in her Vacation Bible School in Georgia, and the persistent spiritual hunger that had attracted her to contemplative prayer.

Though she made a brief detour through Episcopalianism and approvingly quotes an occasional Christian writer, Kidd’s immersion in radical feminist theology soon convinced her that she could no longer worship a Father God or participate in a religion that sanctioned”at least in some churches”male-only clergy. She began seeing a Jungian psychoanalyst, trekked to Crete to search for traces of the “Great Goddess,” and joined feminist friends for moonlight dancing around a makeshift altar and rituals involving everything from tying each other’s wrists with yarn to burying a shoebox intended to symbolize the death of patriarchy.

Kidd soon embraced explicit worship of the Goddess”or, to use some of her other favored terms, Great Mother, Big Wisdom, Mother Goddess, Female Friend, Feminine Divine, and the Great Lap. Kidd does not concern herself with the objective reality of the deity behind these images. She mixes and matches her myths and symbols, at times arguing that she only seeks to balance masculine images of the divine with feminine ones. She claims to reject pantheism, but her deification of the environment and refusal to draw distinctions between God and creation suggest otherwise. Ultimately, Kidd’s New Age journey reaches its predictable denouement when she declares, “I came to know myself as an embodiment of Goddess.”

It’s easy to dismiss Kidd’s story as the tale of another angry feminist pouting about patriarchy and indulging New Age silliness. Indeed, Kidd encourages that dismissal when she waxes poetic about her spiritual communion with turtles and rails against a man”a churchgoing man!”who traps and kills the squirrels that spoil his garden.

Yet the appeal of goddess and nature worship is real to many, and ignoring the questions raised by women such as Kidd only encourages them to seek answers outside Christianity. Some blame their exodus on the second-class treatment they received in churches where women are told to bring the coffee and doughnuts and leave the deep thinking to the men. Others complain of gender-neutral churches where women are encouraged to imitate men rather than find female models of holiness. Still others never learned the basics of the faith and felt only a tenuous connection to their childhood churches. Bored by the slick, choreographed worship of their evangelical megachurches or the happy-clappy liturgies and banal sermons of their mainstream Protestant or Catholic upbringing, they en­counter New Age mysticism”often through feminists in their churches or religious schools”and feel drawn to its emphasis on mystery, ritual, transcendence, and ­community.

A large number of the women who embrace goddess worship and neopaganism do so for ideological reasons. Many are frustrated feminists who thought the women’s movement that overturned gender distinctions in secular culture would revolutionize the Church in the same way. Angry that they cannot be ordained priests or rewrite the Bible to conform to feminist dogmas, they create their own rituals, their own moral rules, and a goddess made in their own image. Some keep one foot in the Church, remaining in their pulpits, teaching posts, or religious orders while working to subvert traditional Christian doctrines from the inside.

These more strident worshippers of the Goddess Within may not be open to persuasion, but others”women at the margins of the Church who cling to Christianity despite their doubts”are hungry for genuine dialogue. In the spirit of engaging them, Lilian Calles Barger has written Chasing Sophia: Reclaiming the Lost Wisdom of Jesus. Barger is founder of the Damaris Project, a Dallas-based nonprofit that encourages women to gather for group conversations about Jesus and contemporary culture. Her first book, Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body , dissected the dualistic worldview that leads some women to denigrate the body and others to exalt it as divine.

Chasing Sophia picks up where Eve’s Revenge left off by grappling with the claims of feminist theologians and those seeking a Feminine Divine. Barger explicitly positions her book as a response to The Dance of the Dissident Daughter . “When I read [Kidd’s] story, I felt as though I was reading my own,” Barger writes in her first chapter. “Like Kidd, I did not want to live the life of a ‘sanitized’ woman”a ‘good’ woman who can’t speak from her own knowing. Unlike Kidd, I wasn’t ready to ignore Jesus and abandon his historical significance. I came to realize that I could own my faith as a woman, and Jesus would go with me.”

Though a low-church Protestant, Barger draws on the association of Jesus with Divine Wisdom, Hagia Sophia , in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Noting that the Hebrew Scriptures personify wisdom as a woman, Barger argues that today’s women can find a feminine image of the divine by seeing Jesus as “the Sophia of God.”
The term has heavy historical baggage. Sophia was a central figure in Gnostic myths about the origins of the cosmos, which the early Church condemned as heresy. Today’s neo-Gnostic feminist theologians have attempted to revive the idea of Sophia as God’s feminine soul and source of power, using Sophia as a bridge between the Hebrew Scriptures and goddess worship. They argue that the Bible’s personification of wisdom as a woman was an oblique reference to a female deity. Some identify this goddess with Jesus; others depict Jesus as Sophia’s prophet; others dispense with Jesus altogether and worship only Sophia as the goddess of ­wisdom.

Barger distances herself from Gnostic spirituality by forcefully critiquing its misogyny. She notes that Gnostic texts often denigrated women and women’s bodies, while authentic Christian spirituality af­firms the body as made in God’s image. As for the good old days of goddess cults for which many feminist neopagans pine, Barger reminds them that women rarely benefited from the worship of a feminine deity. “In pagan cultures, where female infanticide was completely accepted and abortion was frequently imposed on women, the goddess cult remained mysteriously silent,” Barger writes. “Could it be that the idea of Goddess was part of patriarchy’s underpinning? Goddess worship never resulted in equality for women.” Barger adds that the goddess popularized in such books as Laurie Sue Brockway’s A Goddess Is a Girl’s Best Friend “is too chummy, too hip to produce a sense of awe . . . . The popular goddesses of today seem to confirm what culture has believed all along: women are spiritually trite and inconsequential.”

Jesus, by contrast, took women seriously. Barger notes that he engaged women on their own turf, as with the Samaritan woman at the well, and he challenged them to be more than busybodies and domestic servants, as with Mary and Martha. He revealed to them secrets of the kingdom and the secrets of their own hearts. “Jesus made it a point to seek out women and to engage with them in spiritual conversations,” Barger writes. “Jesus was offering more than religious knowledge. He was offering a holistic way of knowing God.”

While Barger mentions feminist challenges to a Father God and other thorny theological issues, she rarely answers them directly. Nor does she pay much attention to Mary, the mother of Jesus, in her analysis of women’s roles in Christianity. Instead she invites readers to see the feminine face of the divine in the wisdom of Jesus. Barger does not argue against Jesus’ incarnation as a man but says that Jesus embodies the “Woman Wisdom” of the Hebrew Scriptures. Calling him “our Sophia and our Sage” and probing gospel stories of his encounters with women, Barger argues that Jesus “wasn’t (and isn’t) in the business of creating docile women.”

Since Barger hesitates to acknowledge or probe the nature of innate differences between the sexes that extend beyond biology”perhaps due to a fear of reinforcing stereotypes and alienating feminists”she weakens her argument that women have unique spiritual needs not addressed by masculine models of spirituality.

Barger’s equating of Jesus with “Woman Wisdom” and “Sophia” also presents problems. She risks confusing readers who cannot discern the difference between Christian worship of Jesus-as-Sophia and the neo-Gnostic worship of Sophia, pagan goddess. Over the centuries, Christian theologians have sometimes depicted both Jesus and the Holy Spirit as feminine in relation to God the Father. But orthodox Christian theology has never sanctioned a reduction of the three persons of the Trinity to a list of their attributes or functions, as in the popular feminist formulation “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.” Functions and attributes cannot exist in a communion of love; only persons can. Downplaying the distinct, biblically revealed identities of the three persons of the Trinity”including the manhood of Jesus”ultimately leads to a denial of our own distinct identity as persons who image the Trinitarian God precisely in and through our sexual difference.
Still, the questions raised by women such as Kidd remain, and writers such as Barger know that heavy-handed critiques of feminist theology are unlikely to persuade women whose concerns are linked more often to chauvinist pastors and small-minded Sunday school teachers than to the agenda of Rosemary Radford Ruether and Women-Church.

It is no coincidence that many women struggling to understand the relationship between their faith and their feminine nature have been inspired by Pope John Paul II’s call for a new Christian feminism based on his theology of the body. They find it liberating to recognize and explore their sexual difference, rather than repressing and denying it. They see that a truce in the battle of the sexes convulsing the culture and the Church will not come with an embrace of androgyny but with a robust celebration of the distinctiveness and equality of men and women and with an equal valuing of women’s gifts.

These gifts were clearly manifested in Mary, the mother of Jesus. Though she rarely makes more than a passing appearance in many Christian books about women, she deserves more attention in women’s quest for integration between faith and their feminine nature. Many feminist theologians have dismissed Mary as embarrassingly meek or reconstructed her as a rabble-rousing political subversive. In fact, Mary was strong, but her strength was rooted in precisely the humility, gentleness, and receptivity that make feminist theologians so uneasy. Her radical openness to Jesus at the moment of the Incarnation was matched only by her extraordinary courage as she stood vigil at his crucifixion. Her willingness to become vulnerable for love of God, and to suffer as she witnessed the execution of her son, makes her an exemplar of precisely the sort of steadfast, inner strength that Jesus encouraged in both his male and female disciples. Mary’s crucial role in salvation history should not be overlooked by authors seeking to answer feminist questions, lest her marginalization confirm feminist fears that Christianity consigns women to bit parts in the divine drama.

The solution to the problem posed by feminist seekers from Betty Friedan to Sue Monk Kidd is not to ignore their questions but to search for more-complete answers. The tremendous popularity of women’s spiritual memoirs and religious self-help books suggests that, while today’s women may be dissatisfied with their lives, they recognize that they cannot cure their discontent by denying their sexual difference or their spiritual longings. St. Augustine said, “Our hearts were made for you, O Lord, and they are restless until they find their rest in you.” If recognizing that restlessness is the first step to intimacy with God, many American women are well on their way.

Colleen Carroll Campbell, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and hosts EWTN’s Faith & Culture.