Sometimes evangelicals—like the culture around us—struggle to view women as fully human.
We see it in the discrimination and dismissal faced by women living out their callings.2
And we see it in the stories we celebrate, from our beloved classics that feature jaw-dropping sexism to contemporary novels and films that use women as window dressings: nice in appearance, but without much personality.
If we look at the early church, we’ll find that our stories weren’t always this way. Many early church sources tell us of the martyrs, both men and women, who sang the praises of God as they faced down death and declared Christ’s victory over the grave.
Take The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church, a volume compiled in medieval Ethiopia that reflected much-older oral histories. In its pages, we find hagiographies (or “holy stories”) of both men and women. Consider the account of Sara, a Christian woman whose husband denied the faith under fear of death and torture. But Sara would not bend the knee to anyone but God.
Determined that she would not lose her sons to a faithless father, she fled with them by ship to have them baptized by the Apostle Peter. On the way, the ship was overtaken by a storm so violent that she thought they would all drown. So she dug a knife into her skin deeply enough to draw blood and used her blood to anoint her sons with the sign of the cross. Then she picked each of them up and dipped them into the water over the side of the ship, baptizing them. At once, the sea calmed.3
In stories like this one told by the early and medieval Church, women were not portrayed as secondary figures propping up the men around them. Instead, they were shown as fully human in their own right, reflecting that the curse of Eden is being undone and our earthly divisions fading away, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.
This would have been news to John Milton. There are a lot of writers I could pick on, but Milton is notorious.
For those who haven’t read Paradise Lost, it’s a seventeenth-century epic poem that tells the story of the Fall—first of Satan and then of humanity. It’s beautifully written, but it takes a deeply misogynistic turn when it narrates the moment of the Fall. In Paradise Lost, Eve alone—Adam is off making a flower crown (I wish I was joking)—is tempted and eats the fruit. When Adam finds her later, he’s devastated and only makes the decision to eat the fruit out of some twisted sense of nobility—so she won’t fall alone.
Are you for real, Milton? All this is contrary to the biblical account! Let me draw your attention to Genesis 3: “She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (NIV, emphasis added). Enough said.
Milton’s legacy of sexism has carried down through the centuries.
Can we talk about C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra? Lewis imagines the possibility of a new creation of a human-like race on another planet in truly Miltonian fashion. The conflict of the book centers on the interactions of Lady Tinidril (the Eve figure), her tempter, and her protector. Here, like in Paradise Lost, the Adam and Eve are separated as the woman, Tinidril, is tempted. When faced with temptation, Tinidril cannot possibly think for herself but instead declares that she will rely on her husband to teach and advise her concerning the tempter’s claims.4
The tempter then suggests to Tinidril that her husband may not know more than she does. This statement, however, is clearly a mistake: it absolutely baffles Tinidril, who insists:
“That saying of yours is like a tree with no fruit. The King [her husband] is always older than I, and about all things.”5
Eventually, Tinidril overcomes temptation, not by analyzing the tempter’s words and finding them wanting, but because a man intervenes to protect her. She is passive, never active.
Fast-forward to today. Walk through the fiction section of any Christian bookstore, and you’ll see that most of the female protagonists live and move and have their being between the covers of romance novels.
Now, I’m not knocking romance. It’s a perfectly good genre that knows its audience, but it focuses exclusively on women’s relationships with men. That’s well and good, but it ought not be our only story—when women’s only stories are romances, we begin to think that having a husband and family is the only thing God made women for.
There are other stories about women, however. Despite its setting in Greek mythology, Wonder Woman is one of the most deeply Christian films I’ve seen in years. It’s a major-studio movie, and I don’t know if the director claims any sort of faith. But its themes of duty, strength, and love drove me to aspire to a more life-changing Christianity. Furthermore, it portrays femininity as complex: a fierce, protective compassion willing to fight to make the world better. We’re not used to seeing such deep, profound truths about who women can be, and it left me openly weeping in the theater.
I rejoice when I see that sort of womanhood in books written by Christian authors and especially coming out of Christian publishing houses. Because there really are wonderful books out there that center on women as active, engaged, fully human characters:
- The Story Peddler by Lindsay Franklin,
- Scarlet Moon by S. D. Grimm,
- A Time to Die by Nadine Brandes, and
- The Progeny by Tosca Lee.
All these spring readily to mind.
Another of Tosca’s books—Havah: The Story of Eve—is a flowing, refreshing, beautiful corrective to Milton and Lewis’s fractured tales of Adam and Eve.
When I was writing Breakwater, I made the conscious decision to center the book around a handful of strong women—Jade, the protagonist; Cleo, Jade’s mother; Pippa, their friend; Junia, Cleo’s sister; Yvonna, an antagonist—but I didn’t want to reduce feminine strength to hand-to-hand fighting, a la Marvel’s Black Widow. I love Natasha Romanoff, but I wanted to write women that I could recognize myself in: women whose conflicts are complicated; who engage moral tensions with their intellect, not just with weapons; who come to differing conclusions because of competing ethical frameworks.
Sometimes the women of Breakwater make bad decisions because of inexperience, or pragmatism, or a hero complex. But at the end of the day, they are navigating their waters as best as they can. They can be wrong without being wicked, or right without being perfect. They can be fierce but feminine; steely but nurturing; determined but still sometimes confused. In short, they’re allowed to embody all the contradictions that make up the human experience, just as male characters regularly do.
In the words of Wonder Woman, only love can change the world. But stories matter. Our stories matter. As people of faith write, read, and wrestle with fiction in which women are as fully human as men, I believe we can begin to see each other that way, as people made in the image of God. And to the degree that Christian men and women view each other as co-heirs of the kingdom of God, as one in Christ, can we more fully reflect and enact God’s agape love in the Church and to the world.
“Readers looking for a quick, pleasant read . . . will find that this book swims well.”
— Lorehaven Magazine
Explore Catherine Jones Payne’s novel Breakwater in the Lorehaven Library.
Read our full review exclusively from the spring 2018 issue of Lorehaven Magazine!
- Lee, Morgan. “Interview: My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness.” Christianity Today. January 31, 2018. ↩
- Moore, Beth. “A Letter to My Brothers.” The LPM Blog. May 3, 2018. ↩
- Barr, Beth Allison. “The Myth of Biblical Womanhood?” Anxious Bench. May 2, 2018. ↩
- Lewis, C.S. Perelandra. New York: Scribner, 2003. Print. 90. ↩
- Ibid. ↩