A friend from seminary posted a link to the following article on hackingchristianity.net about Beth Moore, a popular teacher and speaker for women’s religious education groups.
I do not know much about Beth Moore, and I have never read or participated in one of her Bible studies. I also think the author of the article makes some good points about Methodist theology and where it differs from other traditions. The comments are for the most part nicely thought out, and well worth the read (a rarity on the internet!). But there are a couple of points I would like to make, ones that might not come up in the discussion on hackingchristianity.net.
The first is, not to put too fine a point on it, that being wary or cautious of Beth Moore is already a case of too little, too late. The United Methodist Church has not only let Beth Moore into the house, it gave her matches and lighter fluid. On the one hand, as some commenters point out, the UMC has lost touch with robust religious education in the first place (not that that is only a UMC problem). We have the Disciple series, which I personally adore, but it is a long, intense course that requires considerable commitment. None of those are bad things. But we also need to balance those courses with shorter term courses for both men and women, and a not-so-small portion of those need to be related to the history and theology of Methodism (or other denominational classes, depending on the denomination) and theology and ethics in general. I am also talking about going beyond “Methodism 101″ or Newcomers classes, though those are essential to the process.
As for the lighter fluid, well. I have more than a sneaking suspicion that the reason Beth Moore works in so many Methodist churches is because both functionally and theologically, most Methodist churches are not really all that different from their more “conservative” counterparts. Friends, Beth Moore is not the one setting the building on fire — it’s already burning. As long as Methodist churches, whether they self-identify as mainline or not, or conservative or not, continue to practice in deed (if not word) as if there is little to differentiate them from other churches, then more conservative and “non-Methodist” ideas will continue to gain entrance. All churches are different, but as someone who has recently been in more than a few different ones, including those of the Methodist tradition, they are beginning to look increasingly depressing on the inside. I feel like the UMC’s tagline Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors should have an asterisk, with fine print later on that reads “unless you are gay, poor, homeless, have unruly children who aren’t in the nursery, an immigrant, a person of color, disabled or differently abled, or something else that we say we support but really don’t.” Functionally, what makes a United Methodist Church different on Sunday morning than the Baptist church down the street, particularly in the South?
Clearly the caveat is that not all UMC churches are struggling functionally or theologically. A very many churches have thoughtful, kind and open-hearted clergy and laity who work hard to minister to their congregations, their neighborhoods and their world. But I also think the United Methodist Church as a whole has some stepping-up to do, and sadly, that may be where the real problem is. This is a church that is falling behind its mainline Protestant counterparts in issues like the ordination of gay clergy, still outlawed by the Book of Discipline and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Even with the people trying to change the church from the inside, how long will it take the UMC to catch up with its Presbyterian, Episcopal, UCC and Lutheran counterparts? The UMC, at least in my conference, still routinely places women in positions of lesser power than men. Not all, but many, women are still only senior pastors of small churches, and assistant and associate pastors everywhere. When we are still uncomfortable putting women in positions of power, does that mean we are still slightly uncomfortable educating them?
I think one of the most salient points for me, and one the comments picked up on quickly, is that there are almost no alternatives to Beth Moore, and I would broaden that to include not only the UMC/Cokesbury but most of religious education. The commenters have come up with three possible alternatives, which is frankly three more than I was expecting. The United Methodist Church is the largest denomination in the country and people can come up with only three possible female religious education alternatives to one conservative woman. And none of those women is widely distributed. We are still desperately searching for resources to educate women within the church — the United Methodist Church, other churches. There is something fundamentally wrong with that picture.
So when in doubt, improvise. I will make the commitment to form new lesson plans and curriculum for women’s book groups and Bible studies. My lesson plans for The Help are already online, and I will look to post other lesson plans I have done in the past in the next few days (including one on using children’s literature to discuss theological issues and one on religion and television/movies). In the next weeks I will try to post at least one new (small) curriculum a week on a novel or non-fiction book people might want to read in churches. These will look much like the curriculum I did for The Help. If anyone has suggestions on books they would like to see a curriculum/lesson plans for, please let me know!