I heard about Ruth Tucker’s Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife: My Story of Finding Hope after Domestic Violence mid-afternoon on Monday, after I’d finished my review of Radical and was browsing the Twitters. Zondervan has been promoting her book with the question “is complementarianism connected to domestic abuse?” which has spurred some conversation among the people I follow. And by “conversation,” I mean a lot of us saying “duh. Yes.”
When I heard about it, I could barely restrain my excitement. I’ve been working on the research for a book of my own on this topic: the similarities between complementarianism and abuse, which in my opinion are so indistinguishable it’s pointless to try to separate them. People like John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and Owen Strachan– who teach the complementarian model– are doing their best to persuade men to have the same beliefs about women and gender roles that abusers do. And, even if they weren’t doing that, the goals of complementarianism and the goals of an abusive man are exactly the same: control, power, and the dissolution of a woman’s rights in her marriage.
As I said on Twitter yesterday, it’s impossible to truly adhere to the tenets of complementarianism without becoming an abuser. Removing a woman’s right to self-determination is abuse. At its core, that’s what complementarianism is: their definition of “submission” is for the man to assume decision-making power over the wife, and to compel the wife using biblical means (instead of physical violence) to think that she doesn’t have any other option. That is inherently a violent belief.
So, understandably, I very much wanted to read what Ruth Tucker (a champion for women’s equality in the church) had to say. Unfortunately … I was disappointed.
Part of my disappointment springs from a few concepts that weren’t integral to the book, yet were still glaring issues. Most obvious among these (and one I’m struggling to understand why she bothered including) was the racism she displayed by invoking the specter of misogyny in rap music (116, 117, 155). In one place, rap music appears alongside “African mutilation rites” when she’s talking about female genital mutilation (118). I about choked at that. While FGM is practiced in many African countries, it’s hardly an exclusively African practice– and before anyone thinks it’s something only Muslims do, it’s not. Anyway, it’s blatantly a racist double standard to repeatedly reference rap and only rap to talk about misogyny in music. For all the evidence you need, here’s the “Misogynistic Lyrics that Aren’t Rap Music” tumblr, which has thirty pages of examples.
Other problems were less morally charged, although still frustrating. For example, Ruth Tucker has a PhD and has been an instructor or professor at several seminaries, including Calvin, Trinity, and Fuller and yet she cites Wikipedia not once, not twice, but three times (for articles on Germaine Greer, the apostle Junia, and Mary Winkler, respectively).
I noticed this because Greer is the only feminist she references anywhere in the book that I could tell, and all she does is pull the introductory paragraphs off Wiki. From that reference, I’m incredibly suspicious that the Wikipedia page is the only thing she’s read by Greer, because her articulation of Greer’s view is … well, wrong. Exasperatingly wrong. She uses Greer in an attempt to bulk up her argument for gender essentialism which … arg gablarg. As transmisogynistic as Greer is, trying to use her to support your position that women are feminine from birth (66-68) is just … I might have started trying to pull my hair out. I couldn’t throw the book because I was reading it on my Nook, which is my most valued possession.
There are some other minor problems. There are some structural issues, it lacks a focusing argument or traceable thesis, and the writing becomes noticeably weaker in the last third, when she begins using more ellipses and fragmentary sentences. There were multiple places where I had to stop and read over something several times in order to understand what she was trying to say. The book also wanders a good bit– there are entire chapters on women’s legal standing through American history and whether or not John Calvin could be considered a feminist, which contain neither a compelling narrative nor address the “black and white bible, black and blue wife” idea that she claims is her theme.
In fact, at no point does she ever thoroughly address the concept that complementarian theology contributes to domestic violence. She repeatedly references how her abuser would demand obedience as “the head of the home,” but never explores the links between abusers’ beliefs and the beliefs that complementarians advocate for. In my opinion, this area is lacking because she simply isn’t informed enough to address it (which I’ll get to later). This opens up the book to the criticism that Tim Challies made— that his abuse and complementarianism had nothing really to do with each other. She’s challenged him on this, but in my opinion she did so ineffectively.
I’m disappointed and borderline sorrowful because this book had so much promise. It should be a book I should be shouting from the rooftops about and begging all of you to read. Here is a woman who was in an abusive marriage for almost twenty years with the added benefit of distance and a loving, healthy marriage. Her story is powerful and poignant, and I grieve with her over the things she went through and some of the choices she made. She doesn’t sugarcoat how complicated it can be to recover from abuse– the intermingled feelings of shame and triumph, guilt and relief, confusion and certainty. I can relate to much of her experience, and am proud of the way she unflinchingly examines a disastrously horrible choice she made at one point.
There’s a lot of good in this book. There is. But I personally feel that the good it can accomplish is seriously compromised by her utter lack of familiarity with feminism- especially intersectional feminism. The entire book is framed badly, and there are so many points where I simply don’t follow what she’s trying to do.
At several points she tries to re-baptize “patriarchy” as if it’s some ideologically neutral term, which comes out of her gender essentialist beliefs. I don’t know what her stance on LGBT+ rights is, but from this book I’m assuming not good. There are a lot of overtones of “children need a father and mother” and she spends a lot of time bemoaning the fact that her violent and abusive husband abandoned their son after the separation. At one point she even claims that “apart from abusing me, [he] was a good father” (164), which is maddening. Abusive men are not good fathers. You cannot beat and punch and kick your wife until she’s black and blue and have any standing as a “good father” whatsoever.
There’s also a few moments where I’m wondering how much research she’s actually done into abuse, its dynamics, and the mentalities of abusers. She references only two texts (Women Submit! and Joyce’s “Biblical Battered Wife Syndrome“), and the only other reference to a work on abuse (from Is it My Fault?) is pulled from Joyce’s article. She didn’t do the research this book needed, and she’s not drawing on an understanding of abuse that comes from anything but personal experience. That is harrowing enough, but she frequently uses terms like “he lost control” when anyone knowledgeable knows that abusers do no such thing. She also fundamentally misunderstands the differences between anger management classes and Batterers Intervention Programs (141). Abusers do not abuse because they’re angry. They abuse because that’s the best method of gaining control over another human being.
My last significant problem appears in chapter nine, “Fifty Shades of Rape: Is there Ever Legitimate Rape in Marriage?” As a rape victim, this was the chapter that interested me most on a personal level even though it’s not why I bought the book. For the most part she handles the issues surrounding rape appropriately, but then we get to this:
If almost everything is abuse, the nothing is abuse. So it is with rape. If we define it too broadly, the term almost becomes meaningless. So then, what is legitimate rape?
Let’s say one of my seminary students had made a serious commitment to forgo sexual intimacies before marriage … He believes that premarital sex is a sin and insists they are going too far. He says no. She doesn’t stop. He is stronger than she and could push her away and get out of the car and take a long walk. He just keeps saying no. She persists until, against his conscience and his better judgment, he succumbs to temptation. Is she guilty of rape? (125)
With the answer, to her, being a seemingly obvious “no.”
Again, I experienced the desire to tear my hair out. This, like other problems, springs out of the gender essentialism she clings to. If being a man means being “manly” by our cultural terms, then saying a man can be raped by someone who can’t conceivably physically force him sounds preposterous. But it’s not. This is both one of the ways patriarchy affects men and affects women as a result of rape myths. Rape isn’t rape just because it was violent. Rape is rape because it wasn’t consented to.
She seems to have a fundamental problem with this definition, as she struggles with the guilt of not “fighting back” when her abuser raped her and deals some with the myth that if you didn’t try to kick and claw your way out of it it’s not really rape … but she doesn’t really get it. There is a spectrum of sexual abuse, and it begins with sexual coercion— something she doesn’t seem to have any awareness of. To her there seems to be clear delineations between “sex” and “rape,” when the reality that she’s trying to access is far more complex. A rapist uses a variety of methods, and usually goes out of their way to avoid violence. If they’re violent, they’re easier to arrest, prosecute, and convict. Instead, inside of a relationship they rely on emotional abuse and relentless persistence, like in the example she gives.
Almost every problem with this book relates back to how uninformed she seems to be on feminism and abuse, which is where my disappointment comes from. This book was almost so good, but, in the end, I just can’t in good conscience recommend it.