"“This is the thing we do to women in a world of biased idolatry. Women’s stories get treated as one of Wallace’s trademark footnotes might be: decorative, dexterous, whimsical, trivial. Pretty afterthoughts. Optional.”
Reading these words hit me hard. Megan Garber, in her article The World Still Spins Around Male Genius, demonstrates that women are often viewed as mere anecdotes in the lives of males who are considered of exceptional talent. An example of this, according to Garber, is now deceased author David Foster Wallace’s troubled relationship with Mary Karr. Karr reported that Wallace often subjected her to horrendous abuse. Nevertheless, when people talk about Wallace, they often times view his relationship as something that caused problems for him. Karr’s abuse (and her own talent as a writer) is overshadowed by him at every point. Garber writes,
“This is the bias at work. Here, once again, is the male genius centered while the female genius is relegated to the margins. Karr is there, as a slight character, in Max’s biography of Wallace; she’s there, too, as a kind of human predicate, in interviews about him, in assessments of his literary contributions, in effusions about his genius. And often, too—the world can be so myopic that it can fail to see the genius sitting right in front of it—she is directly asked about him: what he was like. What it was like. How it was to have had, for a brief time, the privilege to spin around such an axis.”
It is no secret that many of the most famous leadership books and works of theology are male dominant. When I am asked to list my favorite theologians and who we can learn the most from, I quickly come up with lists such as Calvin, Luther, Augustine, Aquinas and more. These men produced works of staggering genius. In fact, I recently did a podcast with Dr. Ed Smither from Columbia International University, on what leaders can learn from Augustine (you can listen to that podcast here).
What is much more difficult is drawing to mind female theologians who I have allowed to impact me. I say this to my shame—my leadership is impoverished because I have not drank deeply enough from the well of female leaders and theologians. I often relegate the women in the Bible and in history to mere "footnotes" to the male genius. This is nothing short of a tragedy.
Living in Monica’s World
Take for example the story of Augustine. Whenever I read a biography of him it is clear how brilliant he was. Augustine’s legacy on western civilization cannot and should not be ignored. When you read the Confessions, you realize that Augustine’s memory of his life revolves around three main planets—God, his friends and his mother, Monica. Augustine mentions how his pious, though flawed, mother prayed for him and doggedly followed him, exhorting him to become a Christian. In his recollection, he gives tremendous credit to the role Monica played in his life.
Nevertheless, when reading any biography of Augustine, one gets the impression that Monica must revolve around Augustine and not the other way around. She functions as a sort of footnote next to Augustine’s genius—she pushed him toward conversion and now look at what he did! Isn’t Monica so lucky to have a son like Augustine? For example, in what is otherwise a fair treatment of Augustine’s life, Justo L. Gonzalez writes in The Mestizo Augustine,
“While Augustine was still a young child, Monica was aware of the extraordinary gifts of her son, and she devoted the rest of her life to turning him into a devout Christian with a successful career. This is why one may see in Monica signs of a social mestizaje that was taking place--a mestizaje in which some among the “Africans” sought to climb within the social Roman ladder, very much as immigrants today, who while insisting in the value of their ancestral cultures, insist also in having their children learn the language of their adopted country and leave aside their own culture, so that they may have a greater chance at social and economic success. Augustine always refers to his mother with great respect and devotion, but in his writings we also see the profile of a domineering mother--perhaps of a woman who, being deprived of any authority in her own home as well as any possibility of determining and shaping her own life, lived vicariously in this son whom she practically persecuted until, shortly before her death, she was able to see converted and baptized.” (pg. 31-32)
I find it fascinating that Augustine himself doesn’t buy into that notion. At times within the Confession, he seems to be well aware that he would be nowhere if it were not for the persistence of God and his mother. I don’t deny he had a tumultuous relationship with his mother. However, Augustine understood it in terms of his spoiled attitude rebelling against his mother’s instruction. I understand that we have far more sources and writings about Augustine than Monica and so there is more that we can study and write about. However, how we tell the story indicates a lot about how we view women in leadership.
For instance, at one point Monica finds herself on a ship at sea. The voyage turned rough and many of the sailors thought they would perish. However, Monica was convinced that God had told her that she would live to see her son converted. Armed with this confidence, she in turn took the leadership role of a captain and comforted the crew (Conf. 6.1.1).
Augustine was quite proud of his mother for this bold act that subverted Roman tradition. This story also points us to another truth: Monica cannot be relegated to a footnote in Augustine’s story. She was a woman that lived her own story, full of courage and boldness and faith.
Monica is portrayed in the Confessions as a woman who is devout, though flawed mother. Augustine indicates that she was verbally abused by her husband Patrick, who had a hot temper. She longs for success for Augustine while at the same time desiring for him to follow God. Though not formally educated, she could hold her own in a philosophy debate and could see through the sophistry that often accompanies academic conversation (On Order 2.1.1). She had the ability to make the complicated very simple. She was an intellectual force in her own right.
Augustine, who was prone to live in the ivory tower of academia (what was called Christian leisure) was challenged by Monica to live in a deeper community. Gonzalez writes, “Augustine knew, because Monica had always taught this to him, that participation in the community of faith is essential for Christian life, and that an individual believer joins that community by means of baptism. It was not enough to inquire about God and the soul. In order to accept Monica’s faith, it was also necessary to accept her church, and to do this through a public confession of faith…” (pg. 54)
Further, Augustine gives Monica the last word in his book De beata vita (On the Happy Life) where, after an extended dialogue of what constitutes living a happy life, Monica states, “This is without any doubt the happy life, for it is the perfect life,…to which we may be guided in the wings of a firm faith, a joyful hope, and a burning love.” (4.35) I believe God rewarded this pursuit of the happy life by granting her a final moment with her son before death where they were given a vision. He writes,
“Forgetting what lay in the past, and stretching out to what was ahead, we inquired between ourselves in the light of present truth, the Truth which is yourself, what the eternal life of the saints would be like. Eye has not seen nor ear heard nor human heart conceived it, yet with the mouth of our hearts wide open we panted thirstily for the celestial streams of your fountain, the fount of life, which is with you, that bedewed from it according to our present capacity we might in our little measure think upon a thing so great." (Conf. 9.10)
In other words, Monica is not a mere one dimension character who plays background to Augustine. She is an ever present force within his life—a mentor, intercessor, mother, wife, encourager, learner and pilgrim growing in her faith. She was a leader—flawed, passionate, and wise. She was the kind of leader we need to hear more of today.
In light of Beth Moore’s recent letter, male leaders need to do a better job of narrating the story of Christianity. We often times tell the story as a series of vignettes of strong males leading the church fearlessly. However, by doing this we can give the impression that women have largely played a secondary role in shaping and forming Christianity. What if we told the story of Monica and others as a standalone story? What if we saw the reason for Augustine’s legacy in light of Monica’s faithfulness?
Thankfully, while there is still much work to be done in this area, there are some reasons to be hopeful. More and more authors are drawing attention to the role women have played shaping Christianity. I am thinking of the recently released Christian Women in the Patristic World, Eric Mataxes’ 7 Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness, and 8 Women of Faith by Michael Haykin. Works like these remind us that Monica isn't a footnote in Augustine's life. Women aren't afterthoughts in the history of redemption. These works provide a good foundation for helping leaders think about the way women have impacted the faith we hold so dear.
Daniel Pandolph is co-founder of Ministry Assistant Services and founder of Theologian of the Boss. He holds a BA in Christian Studies from North Greenville University and an MA in Religion from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.