Rift [a review]
I've noticed a pattern when I talk to gender traditionalists and try to explain why I've changed my mind about women in the church, the home, and the world. The first response is, "But what about [insert Bible verse here, such as 1 Timothy 2:8-15 or Ephesians 5:22-24]?" I'll give an answer to that objection, but then the second response is usually something like, "But how much does this really matter anyway? Isn't this just kind of an intramural debate about academic theology?" It isn't, and books like Cait West's new memoir help show why.
In Rift: A Memoir of Breaking Away From Christian Patriarchy, she shares her story of growing up in a theologically and socially conservative home where her father tried to take the notion of "male headship" as seriously as he could. He viewed it as his sacred responsibility to be the "head" of his wife and children, which he understood to mean, "Someone who takes direct and active authority over his family." He took his family to attend an Orthodox Presbyterian Church weekly, where they would hear sermons about the importance of homeschooling. He would read books by men like Doug Wilson explaining that God's plan for women was to be soft, quiet, domestic, and under the authority of either a father or a husband. As a girl, she was taught that her highest good would be to get really good at sewing, cooking, and cleaning so that some day she would be ready for the man who would take over her headship from her father.
West describes the milieu of these teachings as "Christian Patriarchy," a more right-leaning, more extreme version of mainstream Complementarianism, but one still aiming at many of the same ideals that many conservative Christians view as God's plan for men and women. So the next natural question is, "What was it like for a girl to grow up in this environment? If this was God's plan for her, did it then generally lead to her flourishing?"
Rift as a whole provides a resounding "no" to that question. I imagine that conservative Christians will be tempted to write her book off as yet another angry feminist diatribe that paints the world in black and white, where she's the faultless champion who fearlessly smashes the all-bad patriarchy. Yet, the strength of the book is the humanity with which she portrays her family, and especially her father. She is deeply critical of her upbringing and the ways her father acted toward her, and yet she also tells of the sweet memories, too. The portrait I received of him was of a man who was trying to love his daughter and raise her well, but according to a deeply misguided rubric.
Many of us who were raised in the late nineties/early aughts imbibed the teachings of purity culture, but it seems that West's father wanted to play the game on hardcore mode. He instilled in her feelings of excruciating guilt for feeling even the smallest hints of attraction to this or that boy, for dressing or acting in ways that give the barest suggestion that she might be interested. When she was finally allowed to court in her twenties, they were tightly chaperoned affairs where the only conversation allowed was about what the suitor believed about infant baptism or similar. Then her father forcibly broke off the courtship for her when he deemed her too emotionally compromised before marriage, while commanding her to repent of that.
Eventually, she came to the realization that if she was ever going to be a human—and not just the background scenery to her own life—she would need to stop asking for permission. Virtually everybody goes through some kind of breaking away from their parents when they enter adulthood, but it's an entirely different beast when you've been taught your whole life that you're essentially the property of whatever man oversees you. For her, breaking away from Christian Patriarchy was more like an escape from prison.
It is heartbreaking and terrible to hear her story. For me, it was especially challenging to read about her sojourn in Colorado because my family was shaped by many of the same voices and influences as hers during the same time. While I definitely understand why folks believe that it is "biblical" to view male-female relationships through the lens of authority-submission, and while I definitely get why it can seem like an "academic" or "intramural" debate, stories like West's make it utterly clear that it is anything but. Pastors and professors and seminarians might tussle over passages in that way, but people actually listen to the sermons you preach, and they take those home and try to live them out. If it feels academic to you, you need to read Rift and sit with it. If you're a Complementarian/Christian Patriarchalist, I beg you to sit with the life stories shaped by your doctrines. Cait West isn't the only one telling this kind of story, but she's one who is telling it with a great deal of humanity. Those who have ears, let them hear.
DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.