Running my eyes across the ranked list of books I’ve read in 2020, a significant shift demands attention. In this young year, eight of the top ten titles were penned by women. Occupying the top four slots: In the Field Between Us by Molly McCully Brown and Susannah Nevison, Handle with Care by Lore Ferguson Wilbert, The Myth of the American Dream by D.L. Mayfield and Amy Peterson’s Where Goodness Still Grows.
Strands of tissue connect these books: Brown and Nevison engage in naked, uncompromising poetic dialogue about embodiment; a kindred spirit, Wilbert traces the touch of Jesus throughout the Bible. Mayfield lights a lyrical fire, deconstructing American exceptionalism, leaving something smoldering and promising in its place. Peterson’s book is quieter but no less subversive—she laments the church’s broken promises, then casts a vision of virtue realized.
Stronger than any thematic DNA or X chromosome, these titles unite around writing that is principled and compassionate, soulful and electrifying.
In an earlier season of my life, less distant than I care to admit, these books might have missed my yearly list—or my radar altogether. Previous inventories contain few women writers and, revisiting those lists, missing names stare back at me. My mind attempts to make sense of the situation, to construct a credible defense.
No excuses—even as I want to make a dozen, or lay the blame at other feet. Sifting personal history, assumptions and false choices announce themselves. Perhaps the most prevalent log in my eye: a perceived lack of identity with women.
As a boy peering at pictures of manhood, I gravitated to rock singers I hoped to someday resemble: Bono. Jakob Dylan. Eddie Vedder. A late bloomer in more ways than one, I eventually heard traces of my own joy, anxiety and desire in the melodic bends of singers like Dolores O’Riordan, Hope Sandoval, Sarah McLachlan and Lauryn Hill.
Similarly, when I established a real reading habit, I heard only men’s voices in my head. I saw their faces on book jackets and instinctively knew something about them. More important, I felt they knew something about me. What could women say about my experience of the world?
Plenty. The more I hear women—on the page, at the microphone, in everyday life—I find like souls who crave and fear what I do, who rejoice and mourn like I do. Their ideas and feelings filter through distinct experiences and context, yes, but aren’t alien like I once thought.
Whether the lines of the lives of women and men run parallel or diverge, seamless identification as a goal falls short. If I read only to reinforce my experiences and convictions, rendered by voices that sound like mine, shame on me.
When I started studying theology, I thought I was playing from behind and arced my body toward the deep end of the pool, reaching for books by the giants of Western Christianity past and present. The circles I traveled in and spiritual genealogies I traced majored in great men. The lack of women there only affirmed my bias. Now I notice the presence of a barbed-wire canon that circles back on itself, of self-fulfilling prophecies—and church histories and systematics.
Ten-feet-tall women of theology exist. Some cry out from the grave for recognition; others move through our moment—the remarkable Fleming Rutledge is just one example of a living legend. Let he who has ears to hear pick up their work and be edified.
Warped versions of complementarianism and the embedded effects of purity culture round out my unholy trinity of obstacles. Squander years wringing your hands over the one holy and elusive way to relate to women, and you’ll keep their books at arm’s length. Give up seeing fellow image-bearers as logic puzzles or stumbling blocks, and it’s surprising what you glean.
I hate resembling a cliche, let alone several. But I owe my conversion to location, location, location. Or proximity, proximity, proximity, as it were. A man shouldn’t need to befriend women writers to read women writers. Just like you shouldn’t have to be a father of daughters to express concern over sexual harassment. But, all too often, something has to soften the thickness of our skulls.
Softness came when I waded into an online writing community and found talented, compassionate friends. The more I heard them out in 280 characters, the more I wanted to hear them out over 280 or more pages. Bumping up against the limits of my own experience, those women showed up to explain God and give the world more dimensionality than I discovered in the company of men alone. They spoke up—and wrote about—topics men didn’t dare touch. Without knowing it, they proved how short-sighted I was.
I can’t imagine my spiritual sojourn over the past few years without words by Alia Joy, Jen Pollock Michel, Tish Harrison Warren, Karen Swallow Prior, Laura Fabrycky and others. I couldn’t even feel my way along the walls of a darkened room without them. Their work sees and hears me; confirms, then explodes, my suspicions about divine mystery; schools me in lament; introduces theological wrinkles I never considered; places me in conversations with their heroes; and counts me into a dance of repentance and faith.
No shortage of wonderful reads await. My friend Rachel Welcher’s forthcoming book on purity culture gently but emphatically capsizes boats that should’ve been rocked long ago. Works by K.J. Ramsey, Marlena Graves and Charlotte Donlon rank among those I most anticipate diving into as the year continues.
Accuse me of virtue signaling as I name these women and their work. I mean to. My own virtue barely registers. But if the virtue of reading widely and honoring the craft of my sisters too often goes ignored, let me send up flare after flare until the sky becomes bright as day.
This problem and its potential remedies extend beyond past versions of me. In a piece about Christian publishing at LitHub last year, my friend—and one of my favorite writers—Kate Watson points out that women buy far more books than men, then grapples with complicated responses to this truth.
Noting a “quiet revolution” in the types of titles being published, Watson supplies encouragement while still underlining gaps between what the industry thinks Christian women want and what so many of them actually do. Marketing choices made with enthusiasm, yet amid a muddy set of choices and interests, can give quarter to men who experience degrees of discomfort with female-authored books.
Spend enough time around women writers and you eventually eavesdrop on conversations about aesthetic pitfalls. Font choices and color palettes become battlefields as they see their books slipping through the fingers of male readers, judged only by their covers.
To immediately reject a sister’s book on aesthetics alone is another version of a sin men perpetually commit. We expect women to conform to our images of who they should be—in reverse this time, asking them to be less feminine—as a precondition of our attention and value. I can’t imagine what it feels like to wrestle down tens of thousands of words, only to have half your potential audience pass by due to the presence of the color purple.
Women note the presence of male endorsers, or a foreword from a male peer, goes a long way in convincing men to read them. Men ought to vouch for the work of their female counterparts. But should we have to? When our word becomes a must, something like permission, it carries more weight than is right.
Watson notes that a deeper, wider industry will meet female readers’ desires for “a more globally aware, communally focused integration of faith, womanhood and life.” Men should crave this integration too. The more synapses of human connection that fire, the closer each of us comes to wholeness. The act of reading opens us up, but how open are we really if we close ourselves off to so many fountains of wisdom and grace?
Reading women realizes the point of reading at all—to fill in my picture of the world, to more fully enflesh the image of God before my eyes.