- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Was Jesus of Nazareth a feminist? A rising number of young, professional women in the country would answer that question with a “yes.”

“There’s a common belief that Christianity is patriarchal,” says Larissa Engelman, a 30-year-old marketing manager who lives in Manhattan. “But if you look at the Bible and go to the theology, that’s not true at all. That’s institutionalism.”

Ms. Engelman leads a literary group for women called a Damaris salon, a seven-session study that juxtaposes texts written by authors like Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker with the New Testament teachings of Jesus.

These salons are aimed at a growing number of women who are looking for answers in the context of spirituality.

The salons originated in Dallas in 2001 and have spread all over the country: Claremont, Calif.; Atlanta; and Cape Cod, Mass., with ongoing groups in Washington, Denver, Dallas and New York City.

The salons, which address literary themes such as power, integrity and freedom, fall under the larger umbrella of the Damaris Project, a Dallas-based think tank devoted to women’s issues and faith.

The project is the brainchild of Lilian Calles Barger, a happily married former certified public accountant and mother of two. Ms. Barger, 47, saw a hunger for spirituality among middle-aged professional women who might have abandoned traditional religious institutions. She also noticed a rising number of younger women who were being raised without any religion at all.

“I thought, ‘Why don’t we create something out here, in the world where women are, that gives them a safe place to explore spirituality and their lives and begin to think about who Jesus is?’” Ms. Barger says.

A movement more than an organization, the Damaris Project’s growth depends entirely on word of mouth and personal relationships.

After meeting Ms. Barger at an informational meeting, Anne Benzel, a 37-year-old product marketing professional in Denver, rounded up a few of her friends and started a salon of eight women: all professionals, some single, some married, ranging in ages from late 20s to late 30s. Only one other woman was attending a church at the time.

Ms. Benzel, who explored other religions before deciding that she believed Christianity was legitimate, said the salon provided an important forum for discussion.

“People at some point will all ask the meaning of life and where it derives from,” Ms. Benzel says. “The discussion forced people to think beyond normal thinking.”

Ms. Barger’s Damaris vision is only growing.

In March, she published a book through Brazos Press titled “Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body.” Like the salon reading materials, it is not your garden-variety Christian self-help book. The book fuses academic feminism and theological discussion heavily peppered with personal anecdotes and examples of contemporary culture to examine women’s relationships with their bodies.

“I think this book is geared towards this woman who doesn’t want a sentimental, touchy-feely approach,” Ms. Barger says. “They’re thinking women. They are not afraid of ideas.”

But why write about the body something so messy, so personal?

“The issue of women’s bodies, the meaning of their bodies, how they felt about their bodies, was a constant across women,” Ms. Barger says. “It didn’t matter whether they were rich or poor, or how successful they were.”

Evangelicals traditionally have avoided the topic like a scantily clad woman on a street corner.

“Well, we are a prudish lot, aren’t we?” says Frank A. James III, a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary. But that’s precisely what Mr. James finds endearing about the book.

“I think that talking about women’s bodies is something that we [evangelicals] ought to be doing because there is more than just the question of the body,” Mr. James says. “It’s a question of how we perceive the person.”

The Catholic faith always has placed an importance on the physical presence of the body, through its teachings on rituals, the Eucharist and the Resurrection. Mary Shivanandan, professor of theology at John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at Catholic University, says she is pleased to see Protestants discussing these issues in Ms. Barger’s book.

“Seeing the body as an essential path to God is critical,” she says.

Though Mrs. Shivanandan is pleased overall with the ideas presented and the opportunity for discussion, she disagrees with some of the finer theological points of Ms. Barger’s book.

“Eve’s Revenge” has drawn endorsements from a conservative seminary professor and approval from a Catholic professor, but also has won support from Naomi R. Wolf, feminist and co-founder of the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership.

“Well, I’m Jewish, but I’m really into Jesus, too,” Ms. Wolf says.

In this playground of spirituality, Ms. Wolf hastens to clarify that in her belief system all religions Christianity as well as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism lead to God.

The role of spirituality, as Ms. Wolf sees it, is crucial.

“If you’re not a soul, it really matters how big your thighs are,” Ms. Wolf says. “Feminism has really worked hard to raise women’s self-esteem. What’s going to do more for your sense of value and worth than to feel like you’re truly a child of God?”

Though Ms. Wolf and Ms. Barger agree on the generalities of spirituality, they disagree on the semantics of sexuality.

Ms. Wolf, a vocal proponent of the pro-choice movement, is the author of “Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood,” which promotes a liberal view of sexuality. Ms. Barger, who has an orthodox Protestant background, presents a pro-life and sexually conservative view in her book.

“Can we have a woman and a life-affirming culture where abortion is highly accepted?” Ms. Barger asks. “The real issue is how our culture views women’s bodies and how women have absorbed negative assumptions regarding what their bodies do.”

Decisions about sexuality and abortion politics will be better made down the road, Ms. Wolf says, if women reach a conclusion independently, rather than “feeling subjugated to a pro-life decision or subjugated to a pro-choice decision or subjugated to a sexually conservative position or subjugated to a sexually liberal position.”

Although Ms. Barger respects and values the ideas of the feminist powerhouses who have gone before her, she doesn’t think their work is complete. “[Feminist writers have] done a great job of analyzing the problem. But now how do we get beyond it? And that’s what I’m trying to address.”

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