All posts by Wendy Alsup

Wendy Alsup is a wife and mom who loves math and theology. She is the author of Practical Theology for Women and By His Wounds You Are Healed. Wendy blogs at Practical Theology for Women.

What I Learned from a Tattooed, Cussing—and Now Bestselling—Fundamentalist Outcast

Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber's memoir of her journey from alcoholic comic to Lutheran minister, is a poignant read. Her sarcastic delivery drew me in easily, though I got bogged down a bit in the later chapters of her story. Pastrix tugs at the emotions, especially in the early chapters. Nadia tells about being raised in the Church of Christ, struggling with the physical effects of Graves' disease, walking away from the faith as an angry, bullied kid, then eventually becoming the default spiritual leader of a group of her down-and-out comic friends after one committed suicide.

It feels inappropriate to attempt a traditional review of Nadia's book—picking apart the positive and negative aspects of her life story. However, reading Pastrix did leave me with strong burdens, and I can't write about it without getting into how it affected me. So consider this a non-review review.

I reacted emotionally and spiritually to Pastrix differently than I would to a book with a deliberate agenda aimed at changing my beliefs on certain subjects. Does Nadia have an agenda? Probably. Nevertheless, it's her story, and I can't invalidate her story simply because I have differing convictions. But I can learn from her story about the questions others have and the places they're hurting so that I can minister grace to the next young person working to reconcile similar experiences. Most of all, I want my life and discipleship to draw young people toward receiving Scripture as the trustworthy revelation of God to us. There's a growing group of vocal teachers who find spirituality apart from confidence in the Word, and I am burdened—not so much for them, but for the long line of young people waiting after their presentations for these teachers to sign their books. Many are seeking, and I want to be prepared to meet them in their questions and concerns.

Cradle of Christ

Nadia specifically discusses her beliefs about the Bible when she lists five core doctrines that drew her to her Lutheran pastor's church. My head nodded in strong agreement with four of the five, which articulated both our sin and also God's great grace toward us. But it was the fourth point that struck me:

The Bible is not God. The Bible is simply the cradle that holds Christ. Anything in the Bible that does not hold up to the gospel of Jesus Christ simply does not have the same authority.

This analogy has it backwards. The Bible is not Christ's cradle; instead, Christ is the Bible's cradle. He is the lens through which all of the Word makes sense. He is the supporting structure, not the other way around. He is the enfleshed Word—God with us—who holds the key to understanding his written Word. Communicating such truth is one of my deep and heavy burdens. May God help us explain his Word to the next generation of angry, bullied seekers in an accessible way they can understand.

Conservative evangelicals sometimes talk about a war on marriage or a war on orthodox Christianity, but that isn't the foundational issue as I see it. The problem is that people don't understand the Bible—and I mean more than just not understanding specific things it says. People don't understand the overarching story of the Bible itself. Ghandi famously said he liked what he knew of Christ but not what he knew of Christians. But I see an even bigger problem—when people like what they know of Christ but not what they know of Scripture. How can we can know him without confidence in the primary historical document that speaks of him? I've written some about this challenge over the last year (here and here), but my burden has been solidified after reading Pastrix. Believers need to understand the whole of Scripture that they may have confidence in its trustworthiness.

Prove a Point

If you're someone who needs to prove a point or win an argument, I don't recommend reading Pastrix. You'll likely just get frustrated and angry with the perceived misconceptions and illogical jumps in reasoning. But if you like to listen to others—especially those who believe differently than you do—there is much to consider in Pastrix. I gained insight that will be helpful as I have opportunities to disciple young, angry, cynical women. I want to walk with them through their struggle and listen with open ears to the burdens they carry. Nadia's descriptions of her internal battles were helpful to me. If you don't personally resonate with her story, her description may nonetheless be helpful for understanding people who do. She offers remarkable insight into the motivation of a not-quite-atheistic alcoholic comic from a Church of Christ background.

Along with renewing my burden to disciple young believers in the trustworthiness of God's Word, reading Pastrix also reminded me how vital it is for believers to consistently admit their own mistakes and correct wrong teaching or practice. Our politics, personal struggles, and biases tug us away from God's truth, and again and again we must self-correct. We must regularly re-evaluate ourselves in light of the Word, since our hearts are so prone to wander. When angry, alcoholic cynics latch on to our inconsistencies and recognize what's truly sinful, we must lay down defensiveness and make corrections for the sake of the testimony of God's Word.

I identified with a lot of what Nadia wrote—not because I'm a tattooed, cussing fundamentalist outcast, but because I love many who are, and I long to walk with them wisely through their struggle as a good friend who points them to Christ and the trustworthiness of his Word. All of Scripture points to Jesus, and Jesus points to all of Scripture. He didn't come to rip apart the Old Testament but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). He affirms every jot and tittle, even while showing how little of it we can understand until we see it through the lens of himself. May we love the Word as he did and disciple others in the same way.

Problems with a New Reading of an Old Verse

Editors' note: Today we're publishing two views on the meaning of Genesis 3:16, when God curses the woman and says, "Your desire will be for your husband." You can also read Claire Smith's countering perspective.

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When discussing gender issues in the church, it's crucial to understand the various interpretations of the curse on women from Genesis 3:16. After all, only an accurate assessment of the root issues resulting from the Fall will position us to fully appreciate the gospel's answer. In what follows I will particularly consider the phrase "her desire will be for her husband" (Gen. 3:16).

There are several historic interpretations of this phrase. Some have believed it represents sexual desire. John Calvin claimed this part of the curse was simply subjection, that all of a woman's desires will be subject to her husband who rules over her.1 John Wesley held a similar view. In response to feminism in 1975, Susan Foh was the first to formally suggest that the "desire" in view is a woman's desire against her husband to dominate him, a view now commonly accepted among complementarians.2

I am convinced, however, that this phrase reflects an idolatrous longing for something from the man that the woman was created to receive from God alone. As I researched this topic, however, it became clear that my view is in the minority. Foh's is widely accepted today, though mine precedes her's, which she acknowledges in her work:

It is that "immense, clinging, psychological dependence on man." Seeing no reason to limit the scope of "desire" to sexual appetite, Clarence J. Vos would not exclude from it the woman's desire for the man's protection. Keil and Delitzsch see "desire" as a morbid yearning; the woman "was punished with a desire bordering upon disease."3

The same Hebrew word for "desire," teshuqah, is used two other times in the Old Testament:

And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it (Gen. 4:7).

I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me (Song of Sol. 7:10).

Of the three verses using teshuqah, Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 reflect the most similar wording. Foh primarily uses 4:7 to come to her conclusions about 3:16: "In Genesis 4:7 sin's desire is to enslave Cain---to possess or control him, but the Lord commands, urges Cain to overpower sin, to master it."4 According to Foh, it therefore follows that the woman wants to enslave her husband, to possess or control him, but that he must rule over her. John Collins employs a similar argument in his commentary on Genesis 1-4, as does Bruce Waltke. However, this interpretation projects something onto 4:7 as much as it does 3:16. Neither verse in Hebrew includes any type of word for "enslave," "possess," or "control." In both 3:16 and 4:7, the idea of control is a projection onto the meaning of teshuqah that isn't inherent in the text. If you don't project the idea of control onto 4:7, the verse still makes sense. Sin just wants Cain---in a big way. And Cain must master it. The views referenced earlier of this "desire" being an immense, clinging, morbid yearning fit well with Genesis 4:7.

Good and Bad

There are good and bad points to using Genesis 4:7 to understand 3:16. On the good side, both verses contain similar wording and are written by the same author. It's helpful when an author uses an obscure word multiple times, as each of his uses helps to illumine what he means when he uses the word. It seems likely that the author of Genesis used the word with a slightly different connotation than Solomon. A bad point is that, in Genesis 4:7, the suffix of the word for "desire" is masculine, but the word for "sin" is feminine. Because of this discrepancy in gender, it's unclear whether teshuqah in Genesis 4:7 reflects on sin at all. Most likely it does, though Calvin understood the "desire" in view to be Abel's, not sin's.5

The other negative point is that Genesis 4:7 represents the personification of something without actual desires. In other words, Genesis 4:7 is figurative while Genesis 3:16 is literal. According to some (though not all), the best hermeneutical practice is to proceed from the literal usage of a word to the figurative one, not vice versa.Certainly, we should allow the clear to interpret the obscure. For that reason, while the wording of Song of Solomon 7:10 is a little different, it's an important text for determining the meaning of the Hebrew for "desire." If we use the clear meaning of Song of Solomon 7:10 to shed light on the two obscure uses in Genesis, a straightforward understanding of all three emerges. As The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament defines it, the Hebrew simply means "desire or longing." The author of Genesis, then, uses it in an intense, unhealthy way (a morbid clinging and yearning), while Solomon uses it in a healthy way (a strong longing for his beloved).

Some argue that the word "for" in Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 could be translated "against," though I haven't been able to find discussion of this in formal arguments. As far as I'm aware, no Bible translation team from the most conservative to the most liberal has chosen "against" as the primary rendering of the preposition in Genesis 3:16 and 4:7. It doesn't, after all, even make sense in English to say "desire against." The problem with our desires is that they are either for the wrong thing or for the right thing in a wrong way. The Septuagint uses a word that could mean "turning away" in its translation of  Gen. 3:16 and 4:7. However, that meaning doesn't fit Genesis 4:7, which makes no sense if sin (or Abel) is turning away from Cain. In sum, I find the arguments claiming that Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 reflect a "desire against to dominate" to be unconvincing.

Ramifications

According to Foh, her new interpretation of Genesis 3:16 in 1975 was in response to feminism. "The current issue of feminism in the church has provoked the reexamination of the scriptural passages that deal with the relationship of the man and the woman."7 If you examine the history of feminism, Foh wasn't reacting against the idea of feminism generally, though she uses the broad term. Frankly, I'm grateful for the first wave of feminism of the late 1800s to early 1900s in particular, for it helped women gain the right to vote, the right to inherit land, the ability to go to college, and so forth. It was God's common grace at work. Foh was reacting specifically to the second wave of feminism (the third wave began in the 90s, so it wasn't an issue at the time). It is odd that such a new interpretation of Scripture for a reason that surfaced in the last 0.08 percent of human history (and that's generous) keeps popping up in modern writing among Reformed conservatives who are known for their love of church history.

If we read Genesis 3:16 in the straightforward way translators write it---"her desire/craving/longing will be for her husband"---it requires no hermeneutical backflips. As a result of the Fall, even though childbirth is painful and the man rules her, the woman still has a morbid craving for him, looking to him in unhealthy ways that do not reflect her status as an image-bearer of God. The woman wants something from the man that he was never intended to provide, that even on his best day he is not equipped to provide. He becomes an idol.

In Psalm 73:25-26, however, we see this desire as it should be:

Whom have I in heaven but you [God]?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Women often perceive weakness or strength among each other by how they react when men fail them. The perceived strong woman doesn't need men. The perceived weak woman continues to follow loser men around like a whipped puppy. In Christ, however, we have a new and different way altogether. The woman bought by Christ and set up as God's honored child with full access to the King of kings has her needs met in him. God pours into her. God equips her. God satisfies her emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. Then and only then can she let go of her perceived rights and be the helper to her male counterpart that God created her to be.

This older interpretation of Genesis 3:16 certainly doesn't undermine a complementarian understanding of Scripture. But it does shed light on why authoritarian views that mask themselves as complementarian are so prevalent. That's the curse playing out. In fact, views on husbands as heads of their homes, wives helping and submitting to their husbands, and male eldership in churches will each be well-served by embracing a straightforward interpretation of Genesis 3:16.

Finally, note that even as God spoke the curse in Genesis 3, he alludes to the breaking of that same curse in verse 15:

And I will put enmity you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel. (NASB)

God has made a way for believers to no longer be dominated and defined by the results of the Fall of man. In Christ, women can choose a different response altogether than either our morbid longing for something from the man or our Christless coping mechanisms for dealing with it. To the praise of his glorious grace.

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1 "For this form of speech, thy desire shall be unto thy husband, is of the same force as if he had said that she should not be free and at her own command, but subject to the authority of her husband and dependent upon his will; or as if he had said, thou shalt desire nothing but what thy husband wishes." Calvin, Commentary on Genesis (vol. 1), Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 88.

2 Susan Foh, "What is the Woman's Desire?" Westminster Theological Journal (1974-75), 383.

3 Ibid., 376-77. While I agree with Keil and Delitzsch's view of the desire in view, I'm not convinced this idolatrous longing is part of God's punishment. In Genesis 3:16, only pain in childbirth seems directly initiated by God. Desire for her husband and his rule over her read more as descriptions of life after sin enters the world than direct punishments handed down by God.

4 Foh, 380.

5 Irvin Busenitz, "Woman's Desire for a Man: Genesis 3:16 Revisited." Grace Theological Journal (1986), 210.

6 Ibid., 204-205.

7 Foh, 376.

For Moms, Former Moms, and Wannabe Moms

Mother's Day is a tricky holiday. Like any holiday, it is sweet for some and bitter for others. For some, it's both. I remember feeling on the outside looking in on Mother's Day, first as a single woman and then after I miscarried our first. Our church had an entrance near the nursery called the Family Entrance. Could I use it? Were we a family? I finally just used it regardless, almost as an act of defiance. Now as the mother of a 4- and 6-year-old, I can deeply appreciate someone setting aside parking near an entrance that kept me from having to walk my toddlers across a busy intersection. But at the time I was dealing with emotions that weren't swayed by practical realities. I just wanted to be a mom. And that sign at the church entrance reminded me I wasn't.

It is an age-old conundrum in humanity in general and Christianity in particular. How do you honor someone who has something good that you want too? How do you applaud the sacrifices of one without minimizing the suffering of the other? I don't know exactly, but I do think there is an overarching principle that is helpful.

Motherhood is not the greatest good for the Christian woman. Whether you are a mom or not, don't get caught up in sentimentalism that sets it up as some saintly role. The greatest good is being conformed to the image of Christ. Now, motherhood is certainly one of God's primary tools in his arsenal for this purpose for women. But it is not the end itself. Being a mom doesn't make you saintly. Believe me. Being a mom exposes all the ways you are a sinner, not a saint. Not being a mom and wanting to be one does too. We may long to get pregnant, looking at motherhood from afar. God sanctifies us through that longing. We may lose a pregnancy or a child, and mourn the loss of our motherhood. God conforms us to Christ through that as well. We may have a brood of children of various ages, and heaven knows God roots sin out of our hearts that way. It's all about THE greatest good, being conformed to the image of Christ—reclaiming the image of God that he created us to bear through gospel grace. And God uses both the presence and the absence of children in the lives of his daughters as a primary tool of conforming us to Christ.

Single woman watching your biological clock tick away, I encourage you to look today at your longings through the lens of the gospel. You don't have to deny your longing or talk yourself into a happy attitude for all the good things you can do without kids. It's OK to mourn the loss. God said children are a blessing. But after the fall, we do not all get to experience that blessing. The gospel makes up the difference. While you are disappointed in deep ways and that disappointment is real, you will one day sit with Jesus in heaven profoundly content with his work in you through this disappointment. In heaven, you will have no longing for something you missed. You will not be disappointed. May confidence in that hope sustain you.

Married woman experiencing infertility, I encourage you with similar words. People can be callous with their words, especially in the church. But believe in confidence that God in this very moment loves you with a deep love. You may feel estranged from him, knowing that he has the power to give you that sweet infant that he has given so many around you. It seems like he is dangling a desire in front of you, teasing you with it. But understand that unfulfilled desire is a tool he uses to give you even better things—things of himself that you cannot know in easy ways. Believe in confidence that this time of waiting is not just a holding pattern with no discernible value, but it too is a blessing, albeit in disguise, as it increases your strength to run and not grow weary and to walk and not to faint. Wait on the Lord, dear sister, in confidence.

And mom who fails her children regularly (because that's everyone else), preach the gospel to yourself this day. If you have any grasp on your reality, you are likely painfully aware of every failure you've made with your children. And maybe you are fatigued by the fears of future failure as well. It's okay that your children expose your own sin. In fact, it's the mom who doesn't seem daily aware of her failures that most concerns me. Christ has made the way for you to be at peace. If you sinned against your kids, ask their forgiveness. If you are kicking yourself for your failures, preach God's grace to yourself. Don't learn to live with your sin—don't embrace it with the attitude "that's just how I am." But don't deny it either. Be honest about it. You sinned. You confess. God forgives. You get up and walk forward in confidence. It's called gospel grace, and THAT is the legacy to leave your children.