I’ll never forget the first time a man asked me why I was in seminary. “Why don’t you just get married and let your husband teach you?” he quipped. I glared at him and responded, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that studying the Bible formally for three years of my life would be detrimental to my health!” Unfortunately, it wasn’t the last time someone questioned why conservative women attend seminary, but that moment was the first time I really began to question why I matriculated—was I veering from a womanly path? Would I relinquish my womanhood upon gaining a theological degree? I wish I had Abigail Dodds’ new book, (A)Typical Woman: Free, Whole, and Called in Christ to speak truth and confidence into my first-year seminarian self. Dodds affirms that the entire concept of what it means to be a woman has been convoluted by the world and Christians alike, and draws us back to Scripture, using our union with Christ to anchor our understanding of what it means to be Christian women.
Part one reminds us of the importance of defining our terms. While some sources define what it means to be a woman by outward actions and attitudes separate from the human base, Dodds demonstrates that Scripture never divorces our humanity from our womanhood. God made us man and woman, not sexually-neutral bases infused with peculiarities. A second pass through this section helped me understand her point: there is no need to focus on what we can do to be women because God has already made us women: truly and completely, and his creation of us as women is not “dependent on our ability to live it out rightly” (37). She’s here addressing the fact that church and society have often put unnecessary and harmful burdens on women when articulating what it means to be a true woman, leaving many women rushing to tick boxes off a list of caricatured femininity only to be left with a sense of insufficiency and worthlessness. Women don’t need to achieve womanhood, she argues, for God made us women, and everything we do is womanly precisely because we are women doing it (37). Therefore, the laudable types of women portrayed in Scripture should not be viewed as goals to achieve, but as examples of women being called by the Lord and responding in obedience (39). Instead of being consumed with appearing as a “typical” woman in the world, we would do well to focus on being faithful women (61).
Building upon this foundation, part two focuses on those particular roles God often gives women. Dodds addresses women as agents of transformation, single women, married women, mothering women, working women, and discipling women. These short chapters offer snapshots of what it looks like for women to live faithfully in each of these vocations. Here is what makes Dodds unique—she doesn’t fall into the same pit of assumptions that many godly womanhood books do, heaping womanly law onto the already burdened soul. Her application of our call as women focuses on lifelong sanctification and the fruit of the Spirit, making her chapters delightfully applicable to women who may not even find themselves in those particular roles at this time. Although she does touch on how each of these roles often overlap in the lives of women, I wish she had spent more time on the complicated intersections we often deal with. What about the working divorced woman caring for her aging parent? What about the daughter away at college? What about women in the church? Although her examples of roles seem ironically stereotypical and a bit monolithic, the concepts of self-sacrifice, gospel discipleship, and overall sanctification can be extended to meet the most complicated calling.
She concludes by focusing on the internal and external challenges women face in fulfilling our roles, addressing the feelings of weakness and inadequacy, along with seasons of suffering and the temptations of law-keeping for salvation. Her goal is for women to live fearlessly and freely, relying upon God’s strength (given supernaturally, but also mediated by the church body). Perhaps my experiences have jaded my perspective, but the picture she paints of the covenant community is fairly saccharine and idealistic. Readers who do not have a healthy church environment may struggle with her high view of church—a view that is wonderfully ideal, but rarely seen. I found myself wishing the author had addressed women dealing with unhealthy church cultures, including anemic leadership, abusive relationships, monoethnic blindspots, and poor theology.
For such a challenging topic, the book is surprisingly short. Several of the chapters have appeared as blog posts by the author, and read as such. (The reader should note that there is one sentence in the introduction that could be misconstrued as a trinitarian heresy, although I’m sure the author does not intend it as such. She states, “We have only one fully trustworthy person in our lives: our triune God” (14). Christians believe in one God in three persons (Father, Son and Spirit), and the overall thrust of the book makes it clear that this passing reference to the triune God as a single person is simply a poor choice of words.)
While the book would be a helpful tool for women discipling younger women in the faith, I would also consider passing it along to young pastors as a resource for shepherding women in their congregations. It’s a quick read that could be a helpful tool in equipping male leadership to intentionally train older women in the faith, as Titus 2 commands. My friend from seminary could sure use a copy….
Sherrene DeLong (MAT, Westminster Seminary California) is a contributor to All Are Welcome: Toward A Multi-Everything Church. She lives in Virginia with her husband and son.