Monday, December 10, 2012

A Feminist at Moody Bible Institute

Rosalie de Rosset
Carol Howard Merritt tells the story of Rosalie de Rosset, an Episcopalian with a Ph.D in literature from the University of Chicago who taught women to preach at Moody Bible Institute.  Here is a taste of Merritt's essay at The Christian Century:

"I have one rule for this class," de Rosset continued without smiling, "If you use the word 'share,' I will fail you. On the spot. I don't want to hear one woman stand up here telling us that you ‘wanna share a bit of your heart.’ If you do, you will get an ‘F’ in my class.” I looked around and saw many women, smiling broadly, shaking their heads. “I want you to preach. You're not schoolgirls sharing your dolls. You have a voice. You have something to say. And I want you to proclaim it."

De Rosset frequently lifted up the need for a sense of longing. “Longing is something that is not appreciated in our culture. We’re a nation of easy credit and quick satisfaction. Yet all good literature has that yearning at its core. When you write sermons, identify the longing in your context. Name it, explore it, and create your sermon around that vacuum. You may not answer the longing, but you need to lift it up.”

I sat up in my chair and moved to the edge of my seat. She's Rosie the Riveting, I thought, realizing that this was the first college class that I had taken where I felt like the teacher actually demanded something from me, as a woman. De Rosset continued, name-dropping great proto-feminist writing like Jane Eyre and constantly quoting Emily Dickinson. Her lectures were sprinkled with women writers that I read and loved, and then she introduced us to women I didn’t know, like Charlotte Perkins Gillman and her "Yellow Wallpaper," while weaving the literary/preaching thread from Gillman to her relatives Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher.

She left breadcrumbs out there, for interested students. I suppose that most of the women didn't even see them. But after each class, I went to the library with the names and titles that I scribbled along the margins and followed the crumbs, looking up the history and books they represented.

Mostly the path would lead me to the rich history of early feminist writing. Other times it would lead me to more recent authors. And woven along with this literary education, de Rosset introduced us to preachers who were brilliant at weaving narratives into their sermons.


Kaye Jeltema said...

My comment to the author of the article you cite:

As a Moody grad myself (and from the same era), I had to shake my head in half-bemused but mostly annoyed amazement at your characterizations of the school. First, the college is not “fundamentalist” at all--that would be Bob Jones or Pillsbury Baptist Bible College back in the day. It's evangelical in the conservative tradition, but certainly not ultra-conservative. The fact that you have either ignored or are unaware of this is astounding and revealing.

Second, on a minor issue with another revealing take-away, why would you say that men were not allowed to sport beards? They were asked to grow them when school was not in session--to avoid the 'scruffy' look--but were allowed to have them. To be so definite and so definitely wrong about something like this should give your readers serious pause regarding your other strongly-worded ideas. If you make a mistake in citing a clear policy of the school, it makes one question your other analysis.

Third, after a lifetime in the conservative evangelical tradition—including 4 years at the venerable Moody Bible Institute, I have never met a single person there or elsewhere who has ever said women cannot teach children. This matters, because—as fellow commenter Kerri Shaw Daugherty has also noted, the idea of a woman not teaching a man comes straight from the Bible.

1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (ESV). Also, 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, “The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (ESV). Feminists have worked for years to deconstruct these texts, and to deny their clear meaning. Moody—the “Bible Institute” that it is—promotes this understanding.

Maybe you once met a person who would call a 7 year old ‘a man,’ but I have not, and MBI has never officially taught anything like this. Based on the tenor of your entire article, it’s easy to believe that your mischaracterization is not inadvertent. Your reader gasps that anyone would be so silly as to teach a woman not to instruct any boy older than 6. What professor taught you this? Maybe it was an instructor who first shut the door, then went on to subversively teach what Moody does not? (From what you write, you might at least admire that kind of moxy.) Where did you find that in the MBI statement of faith or in the student life guide? It wasn’t there.

Last, I find it to be in bad taste that you would publicly bash a college that gave you (along with all students in residence) a full tuition-paid scholarship. As fellow commenter Cameron Smith has already intimated: if you didn't like what you were learning or the environment around you, why did you keep accepting the gift of that scholarship each semester--many thousands of dollars? That's low. And if you only changed your mind later, which is not at all clear from your post, it is still bad form to write from a well of inspiration called vindictiveness. That's not 'working out negative feelings' as you stated in your justification of your article to Cameron. That's full out bashing a place that, despite your several bad experiences, invested a lot in helping you learn.

Okay, so you're a feminist—perhaps even a radical feminist. We get that. Respect those who aren't, and who see the Bible as supportive of a far more conservative view than your own--and Jesus’ representative the Apostle Paul actually meaning what he wrote about women's roles. You could have gone to lots of other colleges where your views would have been the majority perspective. This article is simply sour grapes.

John Fea said...

Kaye: Thanks for this response. I would definitely agree that Moody is not "fundamentalist" in the way that the other schools you mentioned are "fundamentalist." This is a fair point. Too often more liberal Protestants paint with a broad brush and I think Merritt is doing the same.

I don't know Moody, but I do have some experience with other Bible colleges and I think your point about beards is also true. Your point about women teaching children is also accurate.

Thanks for clearing these points up and adding some more nuance to the Merritt piece for my readers. And thanks for reading the blog!

Carol Howard Merritt said...

I'm two years too late on this post! A Moody prof just pointed it out to me.

I think I responded to some of these issues that Kaye brings up on my blog... but I will respond again.

Fundamentalism is a term that was used as a badge of honor at the time. We believed in the five fundamentals of the faith. John, as you know it is a historic term, one that was prized by people at Moody. Of course, the term has developed a much more derogatory meaning lately. Conservative is a very relative matter. I understand the different perspectives, but from my vantage (and most of my CC readers), I would consider Kaye to be ultra-conservative based on her interpretation of 1 Timothy.

I changed the beard bit. I had forgotten that nuance. Thank you for pointing it out.

I understand, Kaye, that you were not told you could not teach children. We are two different people, however. Your experience does not invalidate mine. The idea was based on the age of accountability--some people said it was six. Therefore, women were not able to teach Sunday School over that age. That was the view of my practice of ministry supervisor. I could teach the children, but not without a man present.

Of course, scholarships are given in many schools and academic settings. A scholarship does not bind a student's conscience, belief, or faith. A scholarship should not squelch a student's future academic pursuits or freedom.

Thanks, John, for the nod. I actually wrote it in appreciation for what I learned from an amazing prof.