Like most people, this summer completely overwhelmed me. It felt (and honestly still feels) like the world was tipping sideways, sliding toward a precipice of anger and confusion waiting to swallow us. The news is always bad; people are grieved and shocked and dying and selfish.
In June, my friend RachelAnn told me about a podcast by a woman named Jen Wilkin, which is a recording of a study she led on the biblical books of Joshua and Judges. At the time, I was sold because RachelAnn mentioned that Wilkin spoke on the character of Rahab in a way that was different than any teaching she’d heard before. I, like a lot of women in the church, tend to think of the Old Testament as a bit of a barren wasteland for women--a place where the true heroes are the men, and the stories about women are mostly just those illustrating abuse or suffering.
I couldn’t anticipate, at the time, how deeply this study would affect me. I didn’t know how it would not only completely upend my perspective on the amount of time and attention given to women in the Old Testament, but also transform my anxiety about the world. The one thing--the only thing, I think--that could reach me in a place of true grief over the state of the world and the state of my own heart was a careful study of wickedness, and the God who moved the authors of Joshua and Judges to record it.
I began with Joshua, and true to RachelAnn’s words, I was struck by the story of Rahab and her courage and faith. It’s been years since I read this book, and I felt as if I was reading it with new eyes. This post is partly an encouragement to listen to Jen Wilkin’s study, because it’s extremely thorough in scholarship and timely in its nature, but it’s also just a reminder that all of scripture is precious. I admit that I spend the bulk of my time in the epistles and the gospels, but after living in Joshua for eleven episodes, I am hungry now for the words of the Old Testament. The care God took with the Israelites as he brought them into the promised land, the way the stories are recorded, and the steadfastness of God’s promises are life in a time when we are all feeling uncertain and, to be honest, a little abandoned. Patience is probably my least present virtue, and to read about the many times God had his people wait, and wait, and wait was both crushing and freeing to me.
But really, the book of Joshua felt like a warm up to the book of Judges. It was important in content and context, but when I began the episodes on Judges I felt the true surgery begin. This book is both beautiful and horrible. It tells of a people who are constantly doing “what is right in their own eyes,” with no true leadership and no desire for the good of others. For large chunks of the book God is silent, allowing events to unfold. I felt my heart resonate with the squandered land, the injustices, the exploitation. It all seemed so familiar.
In her lectures, Wilkin kept saying, “If you want to know how the Israelites are doing, look at the women. How are the vulnerable being treated?” She guided us through the beginning of the book, where women have the status to negotiate for what they want (the story of Aksah), places of leadership (Deborah, who also presents qualities of God in such a way that she points to the character of Christ) and the ability to fight for those less capable (Jael). But by the end of the story we are seeing a people who have begun to abuse the vulnerable (as in the truly horrible story of the Levite’s concubine) and care so little about the value or interests of women that they give their blessing to the abduction and rape of hundreds (the wives of Benjamin.)
I knew these stories; I had read them before. But they always seemed disjointed. Now, with the background from the study of Joshua, and Wilkin’s careful contextual analysis, they were transformative. I went to see Rachael Denhollander (the first accuser of convicted sexual offender Larry Nassar) speak last Spring, and her talk was all about how important it was when she came to truly believe that justice and forgiveness are inextricable, and that it was through her study of the Old Testament that she found healing in the fact that God is a God of justice. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I think I can understand a piece of that now, even though I have not gone through what she has gone through. There is a simmering anger I feel, and I think a lot of us feel, at the continual abuse of women, and of people of color, and of the marginalized, and the only way I know to find peace from the anger is by seeing that God cares even more about it than I do.
There were a million personal applications along the way that made the Joshua and Judges study especially helpful for me, but the overarching message is this: God is not overwhelmed by evil, even though we are. And through the many stories about women that are found in Judges (and now I recognize, are found in the entire Old Testament) he is showing us that he sees. When I cry out in my spirit about the endlessness of pain and the triumph of evil, the book of Judges is saying, “He sees.” He does not always help in this world, which is hard for me to understand, but he always sees, and it always matters. And he will always have the last word.
Wilkin ended her study by referencing the book of Ruth, which ironically, although Ruth is my namesake, has always sort of mystified me. It seemed like such an odd little book to be placed right between the chaos of Judges and 1 Samuel. But when I read it with fresh eyes full of context, I just cried. It’s so clear to me now why it’s there--right there, immediately following some of the worst evil found in the scriptures. Because in it, as Wilkin reminds her listeners, we see a picture of sacrificial love from both Ruth and Boaz, a story of courage and tenderness and selflessness, that is so deeply in contrast to the stories we just read. Ruth, like Boaz, points to the character of Christ, and through their descendents God brought about the birth of the savior that is the true triumph over the chaos we still feel.
Most remarkably, Wilkin points out that the story of Ruth runs concurrent to the rest of the book of Judges--not after it, but at the same time. While all this chaos is happening, while women and the vulnerable are being abused, while people are taking what they can and rejoicing in the suffering of their enemies, God is faithfully, quietly at work. That is a true hope to cling to, and one that has radically altered my feelings about the world I live in right now. We do not control the hearts of our fellow people, and most of the time we can’t even do much to fix the horrible things that have been done. But we have the courage to continue to live and to work because God has never abandoned his people, and he never will.
This is the kind of post that is addressed explicitly to Christians, and will be confusing and strange for many of my friends who are not Christians. So, secular friends, if you keep reading, you are about to get an intimate glimpse into one aspect of Christianity. And Christian friends: grace. Grace all around.
I was having drinks with a friend of mine the other night, and she shared with me that when she was growing up, her mom never once talked about sex with her. The extent of their conversation about the topic came down to her mother saying, “I hope you’ll stay pure until marriage.” My friend, who is a mature, grown woman, laughed. “What does that even mean?” she said.
But I sensed her frustration, and our conversation turned to the topic of the sex-talk--or lack thereof--in Christian families. Most people don’t spend a lot of time discussing sex with their parents, Christian or not. But as we talked I felt my own frustration growing at the lack of guidance and information provided to most Christian children. Girls in particular.
On this site, my sister and I post about issues relating to women, and one very important issue is sexuality, sex, and the body. This huge topic, this intimate topic, is one that many Christians don’t want to talk about. But that does not mean it is not important, and it does not mean it will just go away.
Christian women grow up with a lot of myths. Many of them are not told explicitly to us, but are prevalent nonetheless. I think there is none more insidious than the myth of purity, that is often barely explained but strongly upheld. Girls are taught that they are the boundary-setters, that they are princesses, that they don’t need sexual brokenness counseling. They are taught to automatically associate the word “masturbation” with “male,” because it is assumed that Christian women are never interested in exploring their own bodies. Like Edith Wharton, confused and scared on her wedding night, Christian women don’t often get a clear picture of what sex should be, and are taught not to ask questions.
None of these myths are spoken outright, because it’s tough to speak about sex. Here, I want to extend some grace. I doubt that most Christian parents want their daughters to imbibe these ideas. I am sure that many parents have their own sexual brokenness, and find it difficult to discuss these things with their children. But I know for sure that not talking about these issues will not keep a girl “pure.” It will only cause her to seek out answers elsewhere, to grow confused about the difference between what her body and Christian culture are telling her, and to be deeply ashamed when she realizes she cannot measure up to these standards of purity.
There are many Christian writers who urge parents to talk about sex with their children, but their tone often takes this quality: “If you don’t talk to your kids about sex, someone else will!” Which is essentially saying that parents are responsible for getting inside their children’s heads before they become polluted by the outside culture. But I would flip that on its head. If you don’t talk about sex with your kids, you won’t get to. You’ll miss out on the conversations you could be having. You’ll completely ignore a fundamental part of who your child is, and how she was created. You don’t have to have conversations about sex with your daughter. You get to.
We are, whether we like it or not, sexual beings. We live in a culture that has taken this beautiful part of ourselves and stretched it as far as it can go and reveled in it, and this has led to brokenness and subjugation and pain. But Christians are responsible for walking the middle road--for not running to extremes--and as difficult and uncomfortable as that is, we are charged not to be lazy. We have a responsibility to uphold the blend of spirit and body and not give into the oftentimes very gnostic ideas of sexuality that dominate western Christianity. We are a community of people who are all on different trajectories, but one of the things that unites us is that we have all been created with beautiful bodies.
Refusing to talk about sex with our children means that, yes, they will go find out about it elsewhere--but it also means that we are missing the opportunity to delight in the messiness and the fearfulness of our created beings. Like any truth in the Bible, we can’t just point to a verse and charge each other to obey it. We have the responsibility of tracking it throughout the scriptures and understanding what God is saying in the entirety of his Word. The story of sexuality is an especially beautiful one. God has so much to say about the proper place for sex and the amazing expression our bodies have, and if we don’t take the time to understand this for ourselves and to share it with those we love most, we are denying a fundamentally beautiful truth.
There is no blueprint for how this can be done. Every parent has a history, every child responds differently, every situation is unique. And there is absolutely a proper place for sexual discussion, and an acknowledgment that it is only a part of who we are as humans. But I know too many women who have been sexually broken and had no one to turn to, because Christian women are supposed to be the pure ones. We are none of us pure. We are every bit as gritty and vulnerable as men. Until the church, and Christian families, can lift the taboo off the sex-talk and truly embrace both the beauty and the brokenness, girls and boys will continue to grow into themselves piece-meal, without truly understanding the purpose, danger and beauty of their sexuality.
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard