Gender and Grace 25 Years Later: An Interview with the Author

by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of Mary Stewart van Leeuwen’s book Gender and Grace: Love, Work and Parenting in a Changing World, a book that has been a touchstone in the Reformed community’s understanding of sex, gender and feminism. Having gone through 14 printings, Gender and Grace has had remarkable staying power and has been translated into Korean, Arabic and Chinese.

Perspectives: Tell us how you came to write this book.

Stewart van Leeuwen: To begin with, I was asked to do it. In the mid-1970s I was approached by InterVarsity Press. They wanted someone to write a book on Christianity and gender and to do so as a social scientist.
Second, I was in a place for theological resources. I quickly realized that to write that book, I needed to become more theologically literate. Fortunately my husband was an Old Testament scholar, which saved me many trips to the library. And I eventually found myself at Calvin College, where at that time there was a big pot of money to support Kuyperian research. As Nick Wolterstorff used to say, there are three types of people in the Christian Reformed Church: the pietists, the doctrinalists and the Kuyperians. In the 1970s and 1980s there weren’t a lot of Kuyperians, not even at Calvin. That was sort of a minority stream, but we had a tripartite relationship among Calvin, the Institute for Christian Studies and the Free University (in Amsterdam). Having had a bit of exposure to the tradition’s great creation theology and redemptive historical reading of the Scriptures, I got perks (in the form of funding) for pursuing this Kuyperian study. Even then, there was a lot of resistance to the study of gender at Calvin at the time.

Third, I wanted to be of service to the church generally, not just to the Christian Reformed Church.
Finally, by that point I was teaching psychology at Calvin, and I needed some kind of supplementary text.

P: Tell us about the book’s earliest reception. Did it elicit any harsh criticism when it first appeared?

SvL: Well, it won Christianity Today’s Critic’s Choice Award for 1991, and in terms of royalties, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

I think it was successful in part because I bent over backwards not to say “male sexism is the original sin and women are the new creation.” Some Christians were saying that, jumping on the feminist bandwagon totally uncritically. I said, “We’re all created in the image of God, but we’re all fallen as well.” That’s why I include a long meditation on Genesis 3:16.

I bent over backwards not to say “male sexism is the original sin and women are the new creation.”

My reason for doing so was that I wanted to be even-handed. How can you argue with the fact that we’re all made in the image of God and we’re all fallen?

At that time there was a lot of alarm over the creeping divorce rate, also among Christians. Remember this is the 1970s and 1980s, women were moving into the paid workforce, and there was a lot of controversy about women working outside the home. (Many in the CRC thought that was okay if it was part-time and to pay Christian-school tuition.) So people like James Dobson started talking about this. Christians had a high view of family, a high view of home. So talking about things like co-parenting seemed to defuse hostility. One way or another, we had a problem. That got people’s attention.

When people wanted to play “proof-text poker” about male headship, I very soon learned to say there’s no way we can do exegesis until we’ve done hermeneutics. If your hermeneutic is one that says the Bible is a flat book, like an encyclopedia of proof texts (not a high view of Scripture in my opinion, by the way), or a dispensational model and I’m using the redemptive-historical hermeneutic, there’s no way I can answer your question.

Bear in mind this was still a time when the church had an ambiguous relationship to the social sciences. I asked, “In what ways does the church, or do families, participate in the fallenness of the world?” This came out of the redemptive-historical view of Scripture, and that was what resonated with people at the time.

P: Do you embrace the term “feminist,” or does it give you pause? Do you think it’s important for a younger generation of Christians to claim that term?

SvL: Yes, I have no trouble with the term.

As I’ve often said, if I had to reject a term because of all of its uses I’d have to stop calling myself a Christian! It depends which is the adjective and which is the noun – are you a Christian feminist or a feminist Christian?

P: Which parts haven’t aged so well? In other words, if you could wave a magic wand and update or revise any sections before sending it out into the world once again, what would you change?

SvL: Well, the things that haven’t aged so well are the things on which we didn’t have so much data.
People weren’t taking the question of abuse – physical, sexual and psychological abuse – seriously, in the church or out of it. You know, of course, it wasn’t the church who set up the first women’s shelters; it was radical feminists. Radical feminists. They were not supposed to be used as role models, but what had the church been doing while women had been beaten black and blue?

We now have a lot of sociologists working on abuse in families. In the book I had said that, next to substance abuse, conservative religiosity is the best predictor of abuse in families. That turns out to be far too simple. What seems to be the case now is that a little religion is a dangerous thing. The most dangerous male in a family, the man who is most likely to abuse, is someone who is nominally southern Baptist, Catholic, who doesn’t go to church. As long as you’re going to church, it provides accountability, protection. Being actively religious is much more important; being passively religious is a dangerous thing. It doesn’t necessarily matter what your view of male headship is.

P: In your preface, you say, “the riches of the Reformed theological and intellectual tradition” helped you to frame this book – particularly the Reformed tradition’s “refusal to see some parts of life as sacred and others as secular,” its unwillingness to see “the body as less valuable or ‘spiritual’ than the mind or the soul” and finally, its commitment to the principle semper reformanda (“always reforming”). And yet you note that Calvinist scholars had done little in the way of engaging issues of gender. How would you assess the Reformed tradition’s engagement with gender since the publication of Gender and Grace?

SvL: I can mention some things that still keep Reformed folks from engaging this issue. One of them is just simply cultural. Abraham Kuyper basically defended, hook, line and sinker, the public/private gender dichotomy, and he read it right back into creation.

But spheres are activities. Some of the architects of apartheid got this wrong, saying Reformed theology says we have separate spheres for blacks and whites. Kuyper never says that different races belong in different spheres. But he does buy into the separate gender spheres.

This is in the woodwork; people in the Reformed tradition have absorbed this gender-sphere dichotomy. At Calvin at the time I was writing this book, some faculty, mostly men, were so hostile to our gender team of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship because they were working full-time with stay-at-home wives, and [these men] were very defensive about that. I had to stand up again and again and explain that I never talked about “working wives” and “nonworking wives,” but rather “home-working and wage-working” wives. And I said home-working women should get social-security benefits. I had to say it again and again, but they were so wedded to this public/private dichotomy, since it worked so well for them.

There’s no way we can do exegesis until we’ve done hermeneutics.

And it worked well for their wives, in many cases. Because when you’re in a place like Grand Rapids and part of a well-functioning church, you don’t necessarily have that “problem that has no name” that Betty Friedan talked about. Women volunteered, participated in women’s groups, in community, and so they were not like Betty Friedan, who’s told she needs to have an education so she can have intelligent conversations with her husband, and she’s supposed to get really excited about that nice toilet cleaner – in other words, that “feminine mystique.” This may not seem like such a big problem in a well-functioning Christian community, and that’s fair.

On the other hand, men and women are not as different as we think they are, and rigid gender roles hurt men as much as they hurt women. That’s the message of my book My Brother’s Keeper.

P: Can you tell us something about your most recent book, A Sword Between the Sexes? C.S. Lewis and the Gender Debate?

SvL: In the Lewis book, I don’t want to say I was less accommodating, but I think I stirred up more trouble. If you’re a liberal Christian, you’re supposed to see C.S. Lewis as a patriarchal demon. If you’re a conservative Christian, you’re supposed to see him as a Protestant saint. I refused to take either of those perspectives. I wrote it in such a way as to bridge a gap. But when you start to problematize things like manhood and when you try not to demonize men as being the sole source of the problem, when you start to say “men aren’t all to blame” (another case of trying to be even-handed in assessing where the fallenness lies), then you start to fall between the cracks. My books after Gender and Grace started falling between the cracks. Now I’m falling between the cracks because I won’t say if gays should marry or not.

P: What are some of the other critical issues related to gender and sexuality confronting the church today?

SvL: The issues of gender diversity, of GLBTQ … XYZ. A while back, I reviewed a number of books on intersex and the psychology of gender in Books and Culture (September/October and November/December 2012), including two on the history of eunuchs (in the late Roman Empire and in Byzantium). These raise fascinating questions on old debates about essentialism and the social construction of gender, on the fixity versus the fluidity of sexual orientation, gender identity and gendered behaviors, and they problematize our categories.

Mary Stewart van Leeuwen teaches at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and is the author, most recently, of A Sword Between the Sexes? C.S. Lewis and the Gender Debate (Brazos, 2010).  She served on Perspectives’ first editorial board and before that served on the editorial board of the Reformed Journal.

Photo: Trevor Butcher/Flickr, under CC by 2.0 license