Social media might be replacing print media, but as far as women are concerned, the content is not a million miles apart. Whether looking over the shelves of women’s magazines or novels in the station bookshop, or scrolling down women’s Facebook pages, one significant characteristic stands out. It’s that women are interested in the lives of other women. Thousands of words are poured out everyday telling the stories of love and relationships, betrayals and pain, struggles and loss, hope and rejoicing. And women read them. It’s more than just being fascinated with gossip. Some psychologists say it is part of a sense of ‘connectedness’ which defines the way many women order their lives. We can happily reject the gender stereotypes, but still acknowledge that women have always played an important part in the emotional lives of other women. Many of us, even in high leadership positions, still know ourselves primarily in relationship. We are someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, friend, mother, wife, neighbour, cousin. So their news interests us. Their details absorb us. Their lives matter to us.
I’ve never been surprised to see women creatively at work in writing novels, devising radio scripts or directing films. I’ve seen it as normal that there are heaps of magazines, plays and short stories which are written for and by women. These works of art engage our minds, awaken our feelings by drawing us into the daily aspects of the lives of others. Sometimes the focus on our own gender might even seem obsessive. Nearly ten years ago one film broke all box office predictions in its fascination with women’s relationships; The Women, directed by Diane English. It heralded an all-female cast, and all-female extras and deliberately presented the world, and men, through women’s eyes. The result was a range of characters and storylines with both hilarious and sobering moments.
Anyone who wants to reach the hearts of women knows they can usually do it through sharing stories- disclosing things that matter to them, relating incidents and telling how it is. It’s nothing new. For centuries women have been curious to see how other women’s lives are similar or different from their own. And whenever they could, they have written it down. From the 19th century American quartet: Little Women to the powerful 21st century anthology African Women Writing Resistance, women’s stories grip us. Tales of pain or suffering, heroism and achievement, sacrifice and service- we have ears to hear them all, waiting for the next episode, ready to turn the next page over.
Christian women are no exception to this. We have loved our stories of pioneers, (s)heros and inspiring women leaders. We are thrilled by defiant heroines like Harriet Tubman who looked death in the face in her opposition to slavery, or by missionaries like Mary Slessor, rejected by the male establishment, but driven by confidence in her calling from God. We devour the accounts of bravery that run down the centuries; those gutsy Hebrew midwives who defied Pharoah’s regime to ensure the safe delivery of Jewish male babies; Queen Esther who saved her people from political tryranny; or widowed Naomi who made the perilous journey back to her kinsfolk with her foreign daughter-in-law. We know women are no strangers to political resistance. Those intrepid women who went to the lions in Roman ampitheatres rather than renounce their faith in God, are forerunners of so many courageous women of faith whose stories challenge us even now. We admire and celebrate them all. Yet we know they are all ordinary women, like ourselves, who found themselves having to make extraordinary decisions which we pray we might never have to make. Their stories make our lives real.
So it’s gratifying to find that women’s stories are also there in the pages of Scripture. Not only in the accounts above, but peppered throughout the New Testament we find detailed and fascinating incidents of women’s lives. They are so real that we can share their faith, watch their journey, hear their heartbeat. Through the snapshots of their lives we get to know them – and God – better. Through their encounters with Jesus we get to know ourselves and each other more. Even further, these incidents are not just for women of faith. Women who have little contact with the Church or the Scriptures can find in these narratives insights and emotions which strike and engage them. The truth of what we read speaks directly into our own lives as women.
Some characters makes only a short appearance, like the poor widow whose generosity in giving her ‘mite’ becomes a role model for Jesus’ hearers and goes down in history. Or, there’s the woman struggling with spondylitis whose faith draws her into healing. But however brief, each is significant, and their lives touch ours. Some women open up a window on to cultural attitudes- like the Samaritan woman, whose history of being divorced, deserted and from a minority, leaves her so isolated that she has to get water when no-one else is around. Yet through her conversation with Jesus, this same woman becomes a conduit for fundamental truths about God and God’s relationship with us. Some women make several appearances in the text, like Jesus’s mother, Mary, or his two close friends: Mary and Martha. Yet none of these women is predictable or stereotypical. Mary grows from being an alarmed teenager, confronted by an angel, to a very decisive wedding guest whose initiative produces the first recorded miracle, to a heart-broken mother watching her son die. And the complexity of the faith of Mary and Martha; the way each of them grows through listening and learning from their own life experiences with Jesus reflects back to our own complicated life journey.
All these stories appear in spite of the fact that the known authors of the New Testament were men. And for some women that’s a problem. Should men interpret women? They were also very different men. Matthew was a Jewish Christian, possibly a former tax collector. Mark was most likely John Mark, writing down some of the stories he got from Peter, Luke was a doctor and John was almost certainly one of the twelve disciples – the one ‘whom Jesus loved.’ Their story-telling passed on the same tradition, but their differences also meant that they offered different insights into certain situations, and that is reflected in the women’s stories.
Dr Luke, for example could be expected to be interested in ailing or sick women. And he is. He is the one who tells us of the the woman who suffered from menstrual problems for twelve years, and risked breaking religious taboos by touching Jesus. Luke tells us of the woman who had been crippled for eighteen years and whose miraculous recovery upsets the leaders of the synagogue. Luke draws us into the tale of Jairus’s daughter whose parents are beside themselves with worry and who is dead by the time we get to her home. Luke even takes us to a funeral procession where a widow’s only son is being taken for buriel to the great distress of his mother and her friends. Luke is familiar with women’s illnesses and with death. And these women’s stories come to life through him. Miraculous healings, compassion and faith are writ large. Dread turns to joy, fear into freedom, anxiety into release.
Luke is also interested in the stories of women who are not sick or suffering: Elizabeth and Mary, the two pregnant cousins, separated by age and distance until Mary makes that crucial journey; Joanna, Susanna and the other women who supported Jesus financially. Luke gives us Mary’s song: the Magnificat. He also tells us about the women who go in sorrow to anoint a dead body and find instead an empty tomb.
Does it matter that the stories are written down by men? I believe not. Whoever narrates them, those Gospel accounts are indeed authentic women’s stories. They are deep insights into the lives and longings of women. But there’s another important reason. They are insights from women themselves. Many of the narratives must have originated from the women, for they were the only ones involved. How else did the author know that Mary ‘pondered all these things in her heart’ if that story had not come from her? How did John know the details of the what passed between Jesus and the woman at the well, if the Samaritan woman had not given those details, for no-one else was there? How did the author know what Jesus asked the woman he had saved from being stoned, if the woman had not told him – for the crowd had all disappeared? Then there is the conversation between the women going to anoint Christ’s body. Who would know about the concern involved in moving the stone, if the women had not first related the narrative? And however could the Gospel writer have described the shock and then utter elation experienced by Mary Magdalene alone before Jesus at the tomb, if she herself was not the origin of her story? These were indeed women’s stories, orally related by them, shared amongst the community of faith and written down for us.
Women are crucially important in the gospel accounts. Their stories are very specific and particular: narratives of real women who lived and loved, who had needs and longings of their own. But their stories are also universal. They are timeless. They leap from an agrarian, familial, patriarchal culture into a high tech, individualist digital age with its expectations and assumptions of equality. And they ask, what has really changed? Technology -certainly. Legislation- yes. Politics- somewhat. But our needs as human persons remain very much the same. We crave for love, significance, and compassion and struggle with things that are wrong. And women’s experiences and lives continue to be shared with one another through narrative and story-telling.
Social media, smart phones, instant snapshots, omnipresent screens may eventually replace print and paper. But for women they will also be simply the latest vehicle for communicating the stories about the lives of others. And whatever the media, whatever the age, the stories of the women in the New Testament will speak on into the souls and hearts of women – both in our own generation and in those yet to come.