Ruth A. Tucker, Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife: My Story of Finding Hope after Domestic Abuse (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016).
When I pick up a book whose back cover promises an examination of the doctrine of male headship, I get my hopes up. Perhaps like many women raised in conservative Christian communities, I have spent more time than I can account for searching the Scriptures, listening to sermons, talking to people, and reading books, trying to get my head around a concept that is frequently mentioned in connection with the lives of Christian women. And to date, much of the discussion I’ve encountered on this topic has been a deep disappointment. Late last year, for example, I read Designed for Joy and balked at the claims of ‘fresh contributions’ on marriage, manhood, womanhood, and the like. More on that another time. Then I read Women, Men and the Trinity and was greatly encouraged by the humble and convincing criticism of claims that eternal subordination of the Son is an orthodox and historically held view of the Trinity. Nancy Hedberg brings to the surface questions about women and the Word of God which, in my experience, are rarely asked in conservative circles but whose answers are frequently assumed. However, much as I benefited from her examination of who defines and preserves orthodoxy regarding the Trinity, her book lacked sufficient critical depth and failed to satisfy. More on that later as well.
Enter Dr. Ruth Tucker’s deeply personal case for mutuality in marriage. Against the backdrop of an autobiographical account of spiritual, psychological, and physical abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, Tucker employs the Socratic method to probe a pressing but overlooked issue in the family: domestic violence. For example, posing the question ‘What is rape?’, Tucker recounts incidents when her ex-husband blackmailed her for sex, when he ignored her protests, all the while struggling with what I imagine many women in similar situations must ask themselves: Did that really happen? Was that rape? Am I overreacting? Will anyone believe me? Her exploration of the issue of headship in marriage is therefore raw and deeply moving and her questions galvanized with the Biblical power of story. Among the many important questions she considers are:
Who decides what passages carry the most weight in speaking to gender issues today?
Who decides which passages are to be taken literally?
Was the apostle Paul a misogynist?
Is it possible to deal with some very touchy matters with graciousness?
Can we recognize that male headship has sometimes been used as a cover to perpetrate violence against women?
Why didn’t I just pack up and leave?
Did I need therapy?
Who could possibly understand or care about my situation?
The power of Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife stems also from its consideration of marginalized voices, of clerical response to domestic violence, and of the articulate, intelligent, charming, and ultimately manipulative mask that abusers so frequently wear. Over twelve chapters, organized thematically, Tucker explores these and other related issues from the perspectives of battered and later happily remarried wife, of mother, of friend, of Christian congregant, and of academic, weaving her multifaceted identity into a rich tapestry that reveals the terrible complexity of domestic violence. A particularly moving passage is her account of what can only be described as an encounter with angelic comforters during a time of crisis and despair. At each step, she considers not only her own story but those of other people of God she has encountered, both Biblical and more recent. In Chapter 6, for example, she discusses the relevance of John Calvin’s relationships with women in illuminating his ideas about headship, contrasting his with Martin Luther’s marriage of mutuality, exploring what she calls ‘biography as theology’. She considers the wives of Biblical patriarchs, whose marriages little resemble modern conceptions of patriarchy. She examines stories of female missionaries and autobiographical accounts of pastors’ marital relationships. What emerges is a riveting, beautiful, thought-provoking, haunting book that I daresay any reader will find him/herself revisiting for some time.
This is not to say this is by any means the only book we should read on this important subject. Dr. Tucker’s biography as theology fits within an increasingly popular trend to arrive at meaning via shared personal experience, what sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists call a multi-storied or dialogic approach to understanding our world. In essence, a multi-storied approach starts with individuals, living in community, who see the world through the lens of a shared account developed over time. A related term from discourse analysis is intertextuality, the way discourse is passed along, repeated, becoming part of an invisible fabric that underlies how we view and talk about events, ideas, people, our lives. In essence, Ruth Tucker and others who share their stories in a similar way are challenging the existing rules about how stories of abuse have historically been talked about (or, to be more precise, not talked about) in Christian community. And this is a vital part of the process of change. Having used the storied approach as a research tool, I am well aware of its potential. There is much evidence that we organize our thoughts into stories, meaning that to access the deepest thoughts and beliefs of ourselves and others, we are best served by asking them to tell a story or sharing our own. Readers will engage with this as they read Tucker’s book. They will remember their own stories and feel empowered to speak about them in new ways. And yet, for all their value, these stories do not construct a complete argument against distorted, destructive models of headship or against so-called complementarianism in favor of mutuality. We cannot arrive at truth solely through the lens of personal experience. We must return to the Bible, to God’s story. Stories like Dr. Tucker’s are important insofar as they drive us back to God’s Word, to ask ourselves, have we got something wrong here?
Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife is a difficult read, and it is an essential read for every Christian who is grounded in these issues. Whatever conclusions one reaches about Tucker’s egalitarian theology of marriage, her story and her questions urge us to strive for greater understanding of Scripture, remembering the people at the heart of the issues about which we debate endlessly. As we work out our faith with fear and trembling, using God’s Word, Tucker encourages us to do so in love. Her book will devastate. It will encourage. It will humble. It will shake what so desperately needs shaking. It will send us back to the Bible.