Don’t Let Your Granddaughter Hear . . .

  Sept 12, 2021

 . . . Eve ate an apple and caused Adam to sin, and now we are all sinners. On their first day of Sunday School, that is the lesson. Girls can’t help but identify with Eve if not offered extra words of explanation. The first tinge of shame attaches. The Sunday School teacher herself (probably her) is conveying her own heritage from many years of hearing the story. The boys brush off Eve’s experience as outside their realm. They identify with Adam who was brought down by the woman. The simple understanding is that Adam got it right. Eve is guilty, and by extension all girls. Any further nuance is lost on them. This is the superficial, straightforward introduction that children hear from their first exposure to the Bible. In quick succession, the following lessons progress through the Old Testament: evil women seduce Joseph, David, Samson, Ahab, and more.

In non-female empowered churches, the positive examples of women with authority are explained away or do not even appear in the curriculum. The questions creep in: why doesn’t God like girls as much as boys? God, are you fair? If the girls you know are asking these questions, someone is causing the little ones to falter (Luke 17:2). Once exuberant, irrepressible girls start to feel an ickyness about themselves. Where does this come from? Besides the Sunday school stories, the examples around her in the church hierarchy start to make an impression. Women don’t do certain things, are not seen in special places, are not heard. Two and two start to add up. Shame piles on as girls mature.

Research has revealed that girls’ self-esteem peaks at age 11, and then plummets. This is when her body starts to change. Now girls are warned about boys, how to dress, and the long litany we all know well. This does not have to be reviewed here. I am concentrating on the teaching/preaching in Sunday School and church in this article, leaving home and community for another time.

Does the growing sense of inferiority and insecurity build because of the repeated unbalanced biblical examples of “evil” women? Is it something deeper? Perhaps this sense of shame permeates our cells and negative teaching solidifies it. There is enough negative environmental influence on girls that a theology of original sin does not have to enter into the picture. But, as I interpret the verse, after the fall “her desire is for her husband” (Genesis 3:16) includes an innate lack of confidence to properly assess her true worth. From the garden, she feels vulnerability that is only remedied by attaching to a man. The man, as boys hear it, is mandated to rule (after the fall) and abuses it. Not the mutual cooperation and support that man and woman should draw from each other, but an unhealthy dependence so that women feel they must oblige men in their propensity to rule.

As a mature woman, I have recently become aware, again, of this unnamed shame that attaches to femaleness. I was recently surprised to receive a hand-addressed letter from the state prison. An inmate somehow got my address and asked if I was the woman with whom he had had a one-night affair in 2004. He had heard that the result was a lovely daughter, who would be about 18 now. He wanted to make her acquaintance. My name is common, and he thought I could be the mother of his child. Well, that was good for an indifferent shrug on my part. I wrote him a terse four lines stating he had the wrong woman.

That should have been the end of the correspondence. I received another letter with photos, and he described how I could send him a money order. OK, that confirmed my suspicions. I did not answer. I received a third letter, with a description of body parts. I had had absolutely no part in encouraging this, yet I felt a whiff of shame in having received this letter- like I did something to cause it. It invaded my space and assaulted me verbally. I am absolutely cognizant that I have no responsibility for this man writing what he did, yet I felt a tinge of dirtiness. This incident is very mild compared to what many women have suffered. Why do I feel some tiny bit of responsibility for causing it?

Back to the original question. I ask, “What is the source of this shame that women seem to carry with them starting in late childhood, and how can it be avoided?”  Or, call it unwillingness to attract attention, the need for perfection, and insecurity to try skills where success is not guaranteed.  

Picking up again on the successive heaping on of shame that girls experience already in their young lives. At onset of puberty, menstruation seems to bring on the visible evidence of this shame. Even with the very best biological education and female mentorship, pain and messiness are not a pretty part of growing up. Keeping up appearances and avoidance of embarrassment is now added to the maturing process. Now the concept of “uncleaness” becomes clear every time it shows up in the texts−the ones that are not written into Sunday school lessons.

With increasing biblical literacy, girls soon question what is behind Luke 2:22, “purification rites according to the law” (Leviticus 12). Why is the woman with an issue of blood hesitant to touch the hem of his coat? (Mark 5:25). With deeper study into the Old Testament, “uncleaness” is most often applied to women in a way that restricts their activity and authority (Leviticus 15:19). Uncleanness can only be what it sounds like: the opposite of clean is dirty. It is clearly a disadvantage, disproportionately affects females, and takes on the stink of undesirable and dishonorable. Somehow, without instruction, girls are supposed to know this is not true, that men can also be “unclean,” but if this misconception is not regularly explained, girls and women are left feeling “shameful” through this regular bombardment.

If on a hypothetical Sunday, Revelation 14:4 “These are they that were not defiled with women; for they are virgins” is the NT text and Genesis 1 the OT text−an example, many combinations are equally destructive−girls leave church feeling utterly defeated and abandoned by the God they are commanded to love. Add to this the clobber passages of 1 Tim 2, I Cor 11-14, and Ephesians 5, which can fuel entire sermons, backed up with the examples acted out in the church and family, girls are left helpless.

This is NOT the environment we want our granddaughters to grow up in. These are not messages to empower girls to survive and thrive for the challenges they must meet. Teaching and preaching must be much more thoughtfully presented with vulnerable minds foremost considered whether it is in worship services with mixed ages, or in children’s settings. From the beginning, cultural background of biblical times and places must be taught, translation issues introduced, male bias in the history of interpretation, and a balanced story of the failings and good examples of ALL the heroes of the Bible. Materials for young readership must be designed from the very earliest ages to anticipate destructive influences before they damage young hearts.

Find, or produce, safer and nurturing Christian environments for your granddaughters, and for that matter, grandsons too. Review the songs, materials, including illustrations, and language that your kids are exposed to. Frankly, there are not enough lesson books that fit this description. I have long had this issue on my mind and wrote a book, given here as an example, to empower girls on the brink of puberty, called Bold Girls Speak: Girls of the Bible Come Alive Today (Wipf & Stock 2013). I mention my book incidentally; many more should be written for all ages.

Pay attention to the subtle, or not so subtle. messages that children are receiving. At this age, they are absorbing atmosphere and feelings before they are cognitively understanding the content. Give them accurate impressions to prepare them for empowered meeting of the huge challenges facing women.

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