I recently moved (for the fifth time in two years) into a new apartment. My longsuffering brother, Mark, helped me schlep all fifteen of my book boxes. He's a good kid, but his appreciation for the literary arts is tragically underdeveloped. He was scanning my shelves when he stopped and pointed at The Brothers Karamazov. "Who's Doss-toe-ev-sky?"
"Duss-toy-ev-ski. He's a writer, a great Russian novelist. Here, this is’"
"If he's so great, why do you have him next to Twilight and Nicholas Sparks?"
"Would you feel like reading Russian literature at the end of a twelve-hour workday?"
The ensuing banter was too dull to record. Suffice it to say, I called him a brute and he accused me of vanity, but it did turn into an interesting conversation on what people read and why. A cursory survey of the best-seller lists from Christian Book Distributors, Tyndale, Baker, and Zondervan reveals that Christian America's literary tastes decidedly favor the sensational and romantic (e.g., Francine Rivers, Beverly Lewis, and Karen Kingsbury). While there's nothing wrong with this’many "classic" authors (Dickens, Eliot, et al) started out as a pop-culture phenomenon, and every breathless, windblown romance heroine has an evil doppelgänger in the pompously didactic protagonist’it does make one wonder if this is the sort of steady diet on which we ought to be feeding.
I don't want to categorically reject Christian women's fiction. As night-table reading, it does very well; the stories are arresting and interesting, and it's pleasant to know that in the maelstrom of our mundane existence, we can find catharsis in the dénouement of characters whose struggles and triumphs mirror our own (or so we'd like to think). But are these books merely our entertainment, or have they become our education? Are women learning more about the God whom we worship from the Home to Hickory Hollow series than we are from the creeds and confessions?
If they are, it's not purposeful. No one would pick up Redeeming Love and say that it contains the best articulation of the doctrine of God since the sixteenth century. It doesn't contain any explicit theological discourse, nor was this likely the author's intention. But in the absence of theologically sound, rigorous women's Bible curricula’in a time where theologically sound sermons are becoming more the exception than the rule’if a woman is looking to develop her scriptural education, where else does she turn? Seminary is a luxury, and the sexual politics of church leadership has the potential to make attendance a sensitive subject.
There are women's Bible studies, of course; there's no lack of books, courses, and groups designed to deepen a woman's walk with God and change her life in thirty days’but therein lies my concern. More often than not, it's a woman's emotional struggles that are analyzed rather than the Scriptures per se. Many of them focus more closely on a woman's need to overcome fear, anxiety, depression, and insecurity’with some help from the Lord, rather than relying on the Savior who has already overcome the world and freed her from condemnation by the Father. This isn't to degrade the suffering of women struggling with those issues, or to undermine the practical value those studies offer. As tools of our Lord's providence, they do a great deal in strengthening the bonds of fellowship between sisters and encouraging them in their efforts to lead pious lives. But there is a strong tendency (as evinced by their very focus and language) for the reader to become ever more focused on herself and less on Christ. The end result is that the participant is left with a keen understanding of her own psychology (supported by dubious scriptural exegesis), but with a paltry understanding of her identity in Christ.
Why the dearth of textual women's Bible studies? I don't think it's because we believe women incapable of intensive theological study. J. Gresham Machen credited his intellectual foundations to his mother's training, and it was a farmer's wife, Pietje Balthus, who instructed Abraham Kuyper in Reformed theology. Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Dorothy Sayers to Marilynne Robinson give ample evidence of the capacity of women to integrate scriptural fidelity and literary aesthetic. I wonder then if the answer lies not in our opinions of women's abilities but in their tastes. Perhaps we don't see more rigorous Bible studies by and for women because they're not widely wanted.
If there is a lack of interest for works of this sort among women, it's understandable. In the hectic schedules of a job, soccer practice, home maintenance, and family commitments, it's difficult to find the time necessary for a personal education in the literary and theological beauty of Scripture. It's a rare woman who can finish dinner at a reasonable hour, corral her rambunctious children into bed, finish her e-mails, and still have the mental fortitude to wrestle with Greek participles. My point is not that a woman must devote herself exclusively to postgraduate-level studies in hermeneutics in order to attain to a proper understanding of the Word of God, but to suggest that the inclusion of theologically sound, educational nonfiction alongside would prove a helpful and edifying supplement to our lighter reading. It's harder work, and not always an instinctive choice after a twelve-hour workday, but we read with endurance the tome set before us, that we may press on ahead toward our goal of the prize of the upward call of God (not the downward call toward ourselves) in Christ Jesus.