Book that Both Honors and Challenges Me
I am honored to find myself as one of the cast of characters in Dr. Susan Shaw’s new book God Speaks to Us, Too: Southern Baptist Women on Church, Home, and Society. Shaw first contacted me two years ago, asking to interview me for this unique undertaking. The project, underwritten through a grant from the Louisville Institute and a fellowship from Oregon State University’s Center for the Humanities. Oregon State is where Shaw, a graduate of Louisville’s Southern Baptist Seminary, serves as Director of Women’s Studies.
In the interview, I vaguely recall her saying something about this upcoming book being a study of women who have managed to find autonomy despite having roots in the Southern Baptist Convention. With that statement, I was immediately at ease. We were off and running.
Shaw’s own journey is woven into the fragment of the stories of her informants. Each of us represents many, many more women who mostly grew up in southern culture, where to be a Southern Baptist still insures that one is intertwined with the culture. However, like Shaw and about 20% of the characters in her book, I left the SBC years ago. Back in 1990, in fact, when my husband became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Council Bluffs, Iowa, an American Baptist congregation.
While most of the women in the book have elected to stay in the Southern Baptist Convention, most have found ways to maintain what Shaw describes as “soul competency,” a sense that they have the ability to discern what God is saying to them. Many have found active ways of protesting. Others live in a state of rather passive resistance as they function within the paradox consisting of what they believe deep down and the restrictions with which they choose to live as they stay in the cultural and theological restraints that still put limitations on choices, especially in regard to the role they play in the churches of which they are still so much a part.
According to Shaw, “young women (still in the SBC) often assume the benefits of feminism without knowing or understanding the history that led to them..” A part of that history, Shaw clearly points out, is the struggle for civil rights that came previous to the intense women’s liberation movement. Having lived through both of these periods, I had never personally made the connection between the threat that each individually posed to southern power. By having theoretically “lost” power in the civil rights conflicts, the author concludes that the further “losses” posed by attempts to have a more egalitarian church structure in the SBC, with women coming into more leadership and even being ordained, all worked together to throw the leaders of the SBC into panic that contributed greatly to the “need” to bring fundamentalism in as a much stronger player, starting in the late 70’s.
Having lived in several subcultures in the United States, as well as in central Africa for almost a decade, may have made it easier to leave the familiar. It was still an excruciating experience, though, just as it has likely been for the thousands who have left since the fundamentalist takeover in 1988. Because the Midwest is where I now feel most at home, I read the book from the advantages of a geographical, as well as a theological and social distance from the majority of Shaw’s informants.
Among the facts that the author had chosen to lift from the lengthy conversation we had, was a direct quote. “Back in 1982, when we were on furlough, the pastors often would confide in me their concerns. I heard rumblings from some of them about how the ‘women’s issue’ was going to be the downfall of the SBC. I began thinking, back then, that the inerrancy issues really had nothing to do with inerrancy. They were only raised because of the ‘women’s issue.’ We were being perceived as such an awful threat to the establishment, of course.” Of course, 1982 was six years before the strategies, put in place in 1979, finally succeeded at the 1988 Convention in San Antonio..
While my own sense of being a threat played out in a very different way than most of the women in the book, the dynamics are the same as the women who have lost careers or positions in the denomination. Personally, the unintended threat I am often perceived to be is because of my speaking out as a writer, addressing sexual and domestic violence by abusive clergy. Like many women in various roles of on-going protest, I do so using a broad ecumenical brush, yet without dancing around the story that cost both me and my husband our careers as foreign missionaries with the SBC, when we chose to stand against the waffling of many who would have preferred not to remove a sexual predator of his twenty-five year career with what was then known as the Foreign Mission Board.
By writing this book, Shaw has given a powerful illustration of how the “little
ones,“ including oppressed groups of limited power in a patriarchal system,
can together be a spiritual force that cannot be easily silenced. It is a witness
to those who would doubt the importance of such collective voices.
For information on Miller’s own books about personal and institutional collusion with sexual abuse by clergy, click here.