Review: God Speaks to Us, Too
Susan M. Shaw. God Speaks to Us, Too: Southern Baptist Women on Church, Home, & Society. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008. 300 pp. ISBN 9780813124766.
Not often does one find a work that promises to delight the serious scholar as well as the ordinary reader. Susan Shaw’s God Speaks to Us, Too: Southern Baptist Women on Church, Home & Society does just that. The book’s conversational style is reminiscent of a memoir rather than a dry academic tome. In eminently readable prose, Shaw effectively conveys the ideas and opinions of a myriad of Southern Baptist women whose voices have too long been underrepresented in studies of southern religion.
Through this ethnographic study, Shaw sets out to “understand how Southern Baptist women make meaning of their lives, how they construct gendered identities that are complex and often contradictory, and how they understand themselves as Southern Baptist women” (8). The majority of the book’s pages narrate Shaw’s interviews with 159 current and former Southern Baptist women. “Former” is an important modifier to note, since as a result of controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) around 40 percent of Shaw’s interviewees have chosen to affiliate with groups less conservative than the SBC. The book’s subtitle, then, is rather misleading: readers should understand that a significant number of the women included would hesitate to call themselves Southern Baptists. Also unlike typical Southern Baptist women, around half of the study’s participants boast a seminary education, and many are employed full-time in religious vocations. To her credit, Shaw “make[s] no claim that this book is objective or represents all Southern Baptist women” (x). Yet one wonders how a more representative sample population would have changed the work. Readers would likely have gained a more accurate perspective on today’s Southern Baptists by hearing from more laywomen involved in the denomination’s conservative congregations, including its growing megachurches.
Representative or not, the women included in God Speaks to Us, Too present fascinating first-hand accounts of their views on everything from hospitality to the inspiration of the Bible. One of the book’s strengths is Shaw’s commitment to let the women speak in their own words, regardless of what she thinks about the theologies they espouse. While Shaw does not hesitate to explain to readers her feminist views, she treats her study participants with respect, refusing to caricature their perspectives or choices. Shaw’s work thus adds to the growing body of scholarship that takes seriously women in conservative religious traditions, such as Marie Griffith’s God’s Daughters(1997) and Christel Manning’s God Gave Us the Right(1999).
Unlike many such volumes, Shaw’s writing is at times tinged with nostalgia, demonstrating the tremendous cultural and social influence of a Southern Baptist upbringing even upon a present-day feminist who no longer participates in the SBC. Shaw effectively analyzes the regional and historical contexts that have shaped this powerful sense of Southern Baptist identity, taking care to explain denominational terminology for non-Baptist readers. As moderate and progressive Baptists are especially wont to do, Shaw emphasizes individual Baptists’ freedom before God, or “soul competency.” Thus she understands her interviewees’ varied opinions as part of every Southern Baptist woman’s right to interpret her own faith through her direct relationship with God.
Shaw sympathetically explains to readers that “these women are more complex, more thoughtful, kinder, and usually more rebellious than outside observers might think” (5). The words of even the book’s more conservative interviewees prove this statement true. For example, Nancy Moore affirms the common Southern Baptist belief that wives should “graciously submit” to their husbands—but concedes that “I have never known many women who were totally in submission to their husbands” (189). And Grace Geddes explains her readiness to express a different opinion from her pastor: “This is the house of the Lord, and if you don’t disagree once in a while, you’ll never get it right” (255). Readers will discover throughout God Speaks to Us, Too hundreds of similar statements that reveal the necessity of moving beyond stereotypes to a more nuanced understanding of Southern Baptist women.
This nuancing represents the book’s greatest contribution: Shaw implicitly calls scholars to reassess their views of Southern Baptist women’s agency, demonstrating through the voices of selected women the ways they have negotiated their own roles in a conservative denomination. God Speaks to Us, Too is not only a compelling read; it is also a significant analysis of religion and gender that deserves broad scholarly attention.