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Entries in Women Writers (4)


Experience is not theology

I have been reading the book Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilderby Caroline Fraser. It is a fascinating read. I see many similarities between her and L.M. Montgomery, who also struggled with financial hardship, although not to the extent that Wilder did. Both women wrote fiction based on their own lives which left readers assuming that the work was strictly autobiographical. And of course it was not.

Wilder's books, though based on her own childhood, were works of fiction:

Wilder was not a historian. Instead, her novels would be created from a complex tangle of subjective sources: family lore and letters, old hymnals and songbooks, treasured artifacts of her youth, and her own recollections. Her depictions of the West were drawn less from newspapers and encyclopedias than from her inner life. It was a work of pure folks art.

Wilder's daughter, Rose, a writer herself, had different ideas. She had no qualms about not only presenting fiction as fact, but taking her mother's true experiences and embellishing them to make a good story for herself. The relationship between the two is very complicated, and at times, rather ugly.

How much of a writer's experience is part of what they write? Even when it comes to works of theology, how much of our own experience runs through our writing? How much of it determines how we approach the subject and the very words we choose? What role do our presuppositions play in how we process and analyze the material we do research? 

I am a firm believer in authorial intent. But at the same time, I am aware that there can be a tension between the writer and work even the author may not fully recognize. How accurate are our memories? How biased are our experiences? Research is really important, and Caroline Fraser's excellent research has revealed that Wilder was often incorrect about her memories. This is why we need to remember that it is fiction. 

And when it comes to writing theology, research is even more crucial, because research -- especially research from an opposing view -- will challenge us to look beyond our personal experience and presuppositions. We may most certainly inject personal experience in our writing, but we also remember that our experience, while revealing our theology, is not theology itself.


The influence of women writers

I love to see women writing books; especially theological books. I don't think theology is the sole domain of men. I love to write, and while I will not say that women writers have influenced me more, there are some great writers, both fiction and non-fiction who have left lasting impressions on me. Here are some writers over the years who have made me stop and think about my own writing. And not all of them are non-fiction writers.

Lucy Maud Montgomery

While I love her fiction, it is her annotated journals that have really made me stop and think. The content in her journals is not only highly personal, revealing her own mind and heart, but it is detailed. It is far beyond the "Today I went to the store . . ." kind of content. The way she describes her deepest joys and sorrows is honest and vivid.

Margaret Atwood

There are books by Atwood which I love and some I don't. I only read The Handmaid's Tale once, and I haven't even had an inkling of watching the television show. But she has a way of exposing things that is both disturbing and riveting. My favourite of her books is Cats Eye.

Marva Dawn

She was one of the first really smart female theologians I ever read. Even though doctrinally I am not of the same mind as she is, her knowledge and astute writing were a relief to me a number of years ago when I was becoming concerned about evangelical Christianity. She is a Lutheran, but her writing made me stop and re-evaluate my own views on what worship is. Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down is the book I read first.

Karen Jobes

I really admire Jobes. She has facility in both Greek and Hebrew, is academic enough to be on the NIV translation committee, and still writes commentaries that the non-academic can read. She knows how to combine scholarship and practical application. She has commentaries on 1-3 John, I Peter, and Esther. I can't pick a favourite.

I have also been influenced by two of my blogging friends. Over the past number of years, I have read the writings of both Persis and Becky on a regular basis (you can buy Becky's book here). I have also met them both, and come to know them as people. Seeing how these two ladies incorporate their theological understanding to regular life has been an encouragement to me in my own writing. They both write honestly, with knowledge, and with humility. I am turned off by any writer who has the attitude that there is no possibility that they can ever be wrong, or has a condescending attitude toward those who don't agree with them.

Writing is something I don't get paid to do, so perhaps that doesn't make me a "real" writer. But the influence of these writers on my thinking and writing is real.


The Evangelical Christian reading world is not the whole world

I probably shouldn't be taking time to think about the question put forth by Tim Challies yesterday. With only a little over six weeks in the semester remaining and a whole lot of work yet to do, I need to keep focused. However, I did spend a little time thinking about it yesterday, and maybe I'll think about it some more when I have more time. 

The title of the article and the question posed assumes a particular view: "Why Aren't Men Reading Women Writers?" Clearly, in general, that isn't true. All over the world, and throughout history, men have willingly read women writers. What is meant by that question is that in evangelical Christian circles men don't read books by women writers. And likely, considering the original question, coming from a writer named Jen Pollock Michel, the men come from more conservative -- and likely, complementarian-leaning -- circles. 

I was curious about what are the reading habits of those outside these evangelical Christian circles. What are they like among Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, or even in more academic circles? Is it true that men are not reading books written by women in those environments? I don't think the situations are similar. I suspect the question "Why aren't men reading women writers" would not be asked some places. I recently picked up a book that I'm positive men have read: Paul and Gender, by Cynthia Westfall, who is a professor at McMaster Divinity School. Of course men read women writers; it's just not the same in some circles as it is in others. 

Furthermore, these concerns are confined to Christians in North America (and possibly the UK; I don't know) who have access to books and time to read them. I have friends who are missionaries in PNG, and I'm sure they know nothing about this situation, and they probably don't care. It is interesting how easy it is to assume that our situation is the situation, when in reality, it's only a very small slice.

The answer to that question does lie in the publishing industry and what people will buy. But the fact that it must be asked at all has something to do with the place from where it originates.


The best female authored book I have read

I'm procrastinating. I should be studying for my Greek quiz. But I saw again the article about the ten books every Christian woman should read, and I was again struck how the list was all female authors. So, really, the article should be about the ten female authored books women should read. I'm going to assume that the writer of the article isn't implying that women should only read female authors.

I thought about the female authors I have read over the years (aside from fiction) and thought about which had left an impact on me. I scanned my shelves and my eye caught the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down by Marva Dawn. Dawn is a Lutheran theologian, and not a conservative one. I'm sure that many in Reformed leaning circles or evangelical circles might not like her. But her book made an impact on me. 

I read the book over ten years ago (probably more like twelve) and I don't remember specific elements, but I remember that it changed the way I looked at worship and at the life of the mind. That book in conjunction with David Wells's No Place for Truth: Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? was a catalyst toward my embrace of Reformed theology. Perhaps if I read it today, I may not agree entirely with Dawn. When I have more time, I do want to re-read it. But its impact was far beyond remembered phrases, and extended to a change in disposition. I began to lose the fear of asking "Why are we doing this?" Prior to that, I assumed that every authority always knows best. I was in that place where I believed that theology was for the "professionals," and that I could not possibly need to know it myself. When I saw how a woman theologian thinks and writes, I felt a sense of relief, because I realized that I could ask those interior questions out loud.

A few years after I read Dawn's book, I was speaking to a pastor who said some pretty discouraging (and, in retrospect, uncharitable) things about her, so I kept silent about my view of her. I wish I'd had the courage to speak out.

I love to see women write about theology proper. Practical books are always in easy access, but those more theoretical ones by a woman author are not as available.