Q&A with author, professor Beth Allison Barr

Baylor professor and author Beth Allison Barr wrote a novel criticizing the mistreatment of women in the Christian church. Photo courtesy of Beth Allison Barr

By Emily Cousins | Guest Contributor

After causing a huge ripple in the evangelical community, author Beth Allison Barr Ph.D., of “The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth,” reflects on the public’s response one year after her book’s release.

Barr, professor of history and associate dean of graduate studies, argues in her book that the church has long upheld the patriarchy, but it’s not biblical. She pulls historical examples of women leaders in the church, and how the Christian belief to treat women as subordinate to men has been upheld today. She also intertwines her personal story of her husband being fired from his youth pastor job for questioning their former church’s stance on women leadership in the church and complementarianism.

Did you always plan on writing this book?

It was not something that I’d ever considered until I was asked to write this book. However, I’d been writing on Patheos on the Anxious Bench, which is a religious history blog by religious historians throughout the U.S. I had been tackling some of these issues that I ended up writing about with more substance in “The Making of Biblical Womanhood.” That’s what began to get a lot of attention, and ultimately led to me being asked to write “The Making of Biblical Womanhood.”

I’ve seen a lot of negative critiques and comments on social media about your book. Have any of those negative comments affected your life?

The good thing about social media is that it mostly does stay on social media … I haven’t really been afraid. I really haven’t had much changes for my day-to-day life. However, one of the attacks inadvertently raised money for our church … I think the investment in responding to people was bigger than I had anticipated. As an academic, you’re not prepared for that much investment after writing a book, because most of our books don’t go very far. Our audiences are usually our own field, and not that broad, so I’ve been playing this by ear.

Throughout the book, you go back and forth between your personal story and the history, but I also saw some people online criticizing that. What would you say in response to those people?

My goal was to get people to listen and to read, and it clearly has gotten people to listen and to read. Readers liked the going back and forth between my personal story as well as the historical evidence, and using my personal story got people to pay attention to the historical evidence in a way that they haven’t been paying attention to, as most of the research I put out there wasn’t really new research. This is stuff that scholars have known for years, for decades, sometimes some even longer, but people aren’t paying attention to it. What I was trying to do with “The Making of Biblical Womanhood” was to get people to pay attention to it. I think at the end of the day, it worked.

The church that you go to now, what does that look like?

It’s a very small, ordinary Baptist church. We went to that church in 2017, after we spent some time in between. It was a very different place than what we had been used to in ministry, but we were up to do something different. The church is in an area that needs a strong church … It’s a pretty traditional small Baptist church that actually is extremely refreshing to be at, because it is outside of the noise of social media. I get to teach my Sunday school class without really referencing very much else that is going on.

Do they uphold the ideas that you wrote about in your book when it comes to women and the patriarchy?

This tiny little Baptist church has had women in the pulpit for a long time since the 1930s. We just ordained our first female deacon there, so no one’s concerned when we have women in the pulpit or when we have other female pastors come in from the area. Those aren’t really concerns at our church, and so it’s really great. It’s really nice that people just get to do what they are called to do.

I saw a critique talking about how this book only related to American Christianity. What do you think about that?

Yes, it is about American Christianity. I’m an American in the modern evangelical church, and so I was writing about a very peculiar phenomenon. Complementarianism, which is an American phenomenon, however, it’s an American phenomenon that has quickly been exported. It has gone into the United Kingdom, and it has also gone to Australia. I’ve found that Australian evangelicals are interesting. They, I don’t want to say too much, but I don’t think their brand of complementarianism is as different as they want to try to say it is from American complementarianism. Not to mention the fact that I think they’re still missing my overall point that it’s the systemic oppression of women. Even if you do it differently, you’re still arguing that women can’t be pastors or leaders of your church.

Looking back on this year, is there anything that you would go back and do differently in your book if you had the chance?

I would have liked to have drawn more attention to race. The problem with that was that it did change the focus of my book a little bit. I think I would have liked to have gotten maybe in the title or something that I’m telling a white evangelical woman’s narrative. There were a couple of places in the book where I paused and drew attention to that, but maybe have highlighted that earlier. There may be some things that could have been developed more, but at the same time … my endnotes tell you where you can go to find out more.

Do you see yourself writing about race related to patriarchy in future projects?

One of the things I’ve also learned through this project is that there are a lot of people out there working on different parts, and not everyone is gifted or has the skills to write about everything. I think really what I’ve decided is I know where my gifts are, and where my passion is, and where my voice matters. I think maybe the better thing for me to do is to highlight other people’s voices who are writing really compelling narratives, especially about race. Like Anthea Butler, she’s an incredible historian; Jemar Tisby; Angela Parker had that really great book, “If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I?” which is just an amazing book.

Speaking of future projects, do you have anything firm and decided? What’s going on?

I signed a two book deal with Brazos to turn “The Making a Biblical Womanhood” into a trilogy. So, I’m really excited about it. It’ll allow me to develop themes that I just didn’t have the time to develop in “The Making of Biblical Womanhood.” The first book will be called “Becoming the Pastor’s Wife,” and it is going to tackle the history of how we got to this really peculiar role of a pastor’s wife, which is the only role in church history that you attain through marriage, which is really strange if you think about it, and how it also coincides with a decline in conversations about female ordination – it’s going to be a mix of personal narrative, as well as the history. Then the final book is called “Losing Our Medieval Religion,” and this is something that I’ve been writing about for a long time, about how I think a lot of our problems in the evangelical church is how we are so short sighted, and we have such a short grasp of history, and that if we had a longer view it could help us.

What do you see for the future of the church in America?

Historians don’t like that because we look at the past, not the future. However, one thing that I do know is that history doesn’t change overnight. If we look at the past, history takes time. I think that keeps me from getting discouraged, because I know that in order for change to happen, people have to be willing to change, which means they have to start changing their minds on issues. What I see right now is the evangelical church sort of waking up and reconsidering a lot of things that they had taken as gospel truth, and rethinking them. So that gives me hope that there is going to be future change.

President Livingstone said your book was one of her favorite reads. How did that make you feel?

It made me feel really good. Baylor is a very supportive place to work as a faculty member, because Baylor supports our projects and puts our work out there. Even the provost has had this “Meet the Author” series where they buy books of faculty authors and invite people to come hear them, and they interview them. It’s really a supportive and great thing to do … Fabled had done a thing where they asked 22 people in Waco to tell them their four favorite reads of the year, and so President Livingstone chose mine as one of her four favorite reads, and they highlighted it at Fabled.

What advice do you have to young Baylor students who are evangelicals?

Baylor students always give me hope, because they’re always asking questions, and they’re willing to think through hard questions. I would encourage them to think about what the position is at their churches on various issues, and to think critically about that and to ask questions about it. If the church is going to change, it’s going to be with the younger generations that are going to help make this lasting change as they move to make new churches. So I would encourage them to ask questions, and instead of accepting that this is the way we’ve always done it, ask why. Why do we do it this way? Is it possible that maybe we are just following cultural norms rather than what the Bible actually teaches? Be curious.