By Bill Mefford
I just finished Katey Zeh’s book, Women Rise Up, and it is an important and timely book that should be read by everyone reading this (and more!). Like an excellent guide, Katey walks with us through both the Old and New Testaments and points out the many stories where women figure prominently. I am usually not big on reading theological books, but this is truly an excellent read and so very challenging.
What makes this book a must read for all people (not just women!) is that by highlighting the significant roles that women played in the grand story of God’s longing for the redemption of creation, Katey also challenges us, the church, to recognize the many ways that our exegesis of Scripture has been tainted by patriarchy and misogyny. We have too long been a prisoner of our culture.
For instance, as I read the chapter on Mary Magdalene, who was the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection, I realized how I had been reading this passage in John through a misogynist lens. Katey helpfully points out that Catholic teaching on this passage was shaped by Pope Gregory who made several crucial mistakes in his interpretation. Mary Magdalene was the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. She was named to be “sinful” and Gregory makes the mistake - as have I on a number of occasions - that Mary Magdalene’s sin was that she was a prostitute.
I was so convicted while reading this section in Katey’s book as I yet again realized that so much of my reading of Scripture has been shaped by the misogynistic culture that taught me that when women sin they do so sexually first and foremost. Instead of denigrating Mary Magdalene as a “fallen woman” redeemed by Jesus, what if, as Katey suggests, “we simply stopped speculating about Mary’s sexual past and instead honored her as the first evangelist?”
I had to read this whole section in her book twice because I know, as a former pastor, youth pastor, missions pastor and seminary professor, I have taught this story line, passed down from Pope Gregory, focusing on Mary’s sexual history instead of her passionate and transformative devotion to Jesus. I can think of women who have been in my pastoral care - I can literally see their faces - and my heart is aching right now as I realize how I failed them. I perpetuated a sexist assumption rather than shared the good news of Jesus’ liberation. I am so sorry.
And I am so grateful for Katey’s book.
But I can share my own failures here because Katey shares her own struggles throughout this book. Isn’t that vulnerability does? When someone is vulnerable with us then we can take the chance to be vulnerable ourselves. Katey does not do what so many authors do, which is share only her triumphs and successes. She shares her struggles, her failures, and, in many instances, her funny peculiarities (I loved the story of the inside-out sweater). A good book makes you laugh and makes you think and makes you yearn for something more that where you are and that is exactly what I experienced.
Lastly, what made this book so powerful and so timely is Katey’s ability to seamlessly weave her biblical exegesis with a much needed social and political critique and analysis of so many issues facing us today. Here are just a few examples of the intersections Katey makes between biblical interpretation and political commentary:
A look at human trafficking through the lens of Sarah and Hagar while uncovering the no-so-hidden sexism within the human trafficking advocacy work that minimizes women as objects to be saved,
Abram and Sarai’s marriage as an a means of dehumanizing women and perpetuating patriarchy,
The intertwining of the story of Shiprah and Puah under the Egyptian Pharoah who wants state-sponsored genocide with the story of a Kenyan woman named Alice who is doing amazing work with women in Kenya concerning family planning and who must deal with patriarchy as well (you really need to read this story!)
Linking the story of Hannah with Katey’s experience as a teenager where far too many youth leaders in the church body-shamed young women with a false and repressive purity culture (which still happens far too often in our churches).
And there are so many more.
I really hope you and your congregation will use this book and I sincerely hope as many men will read it as do women. So, I will leave you with something Katey wrote at the end and upon which I am still chewing on:
We will not be silenced. We will not deny what we have seen - the places where God is bringing forth new life, the places where God is calling us to bear witness to the truth of death-conquering love.