This exhibit explores women’s online engagement with dominant religious narratives. Dominant religious narratives are defined here as the institutionalized religious teachings and ideals traditionally produced by white, male, educated, heterosexual, wealthy, and powerful voices, which have dictated much of the conversation around religion. Women have thus been relegated to a marginalized position in religious institutions, their voices either silenced or dismissed. Digital media, however, provides new platforms through which women can engage with religion and contribute their own experiences, interpretations, and stories of religion and spirituality. Our research on women’s engagement with dominant religious narratives reveals three general categories that describe different forms and purposes of this engagement: protecting or working within dominant narratives and structures, questioning narratives through personal experience, and overtly challenging narratives.
Some women work online to protect and strengthen dominant religious narratives. SpiritLed Woman, a conservative evangelical Christian news outlet, typifies this category. SpiritLed Woman counsels women on prayer, parenting, and intimacy in relationships through Bible study. For the SpiritLed Woman audience, women should conserve the dominant religious narratives and protect their family from secular or liberal ideologies that dispute those narratives. One particular article, “Basic Building Blocks for Raising Kids Who Are Spiritual Warriors,” counsels mothers to require their children to read the Bible and go to church. Women, particularly in their traditional roles as mothers, are responsible for raising religious children set apart from more secular culture. Women’s spiritual energy should be focused on family and personal, private prayer.
In contrast to SpiritLed Woman, which seeks to protect the authority of dominant religious narratives and traditional roles for women, other women work firmly within an institution in order to change it. Catholic Women Speak works closely with the Vatican, collaborating with L’Osservatore Romano, despite believing that “women have yet to come into the fullness of our human dignity in the Catholic Church’s institutions, theology and practices.” Within the traditional institution, Catholic Women Speak often presents controversial views that oppose dominant narratives of Catholicism. For example, they are willing to explore traditional theological sources to support women preaching in the Roman Catholic tradition, though this is not part of the dominant Catholic narrative. Catholic Women Speak is dedicated to the religious institution to which it belongs, but is also committed to including women more fully in that institution.
While some women use their voices to protect institutional religious beliefs, other women share their faith through personal reflection on their daily lives. Through individual blogs, these women use their personal lives as a starting point for theological and spiritual reflection, sharing values to create an expansive support system for spiritual women online. Jamie the Very Worst Missionary and Sarah Bessey both cater to the growing community of faithful mothers online, connecting their daily life with their faith. For example, Jamie wrote a two-part blog series about realistically teaching her teenage boys about sex. While she believes in abstinence, Jamie’s blog posts acknowledge the reality of teenagers having sex. By sharing lived experiences, Jamie makes her audience feel supported in their decisions and affirmed in their faith communities. In addition to motherhood, both Jamie the VWM and Sarah Bessey, the author of Jesus Feminist, post about what they are reading or watching on television. Mixing religious and secular content connects readers to these authors beyond strictly religious themes. Likewise, the Mudroom Blog allows for many different women to speak about their interests, ranging from condemning structural racism to celebrating Christmas in a time without peace to counseling women about overeating. Whereas Sarah Bessey and JVWM each present one voice, the Mudroom places many different viewpoints together. These particular women may guide others to integrate traditional narratives into practice; however, some women may take the online opportunity to challenge dominant narratives.
Given the freedom of an online platform, digital presence enables women to confront traditional and dominant narratives. The genre, tone, or style of this challenge can take many forms given the diversity of the women engaged. Women in Theology takes an academic approach. A community of female theologians whose mission statement specifically mentions claiming a female religious space amid a male-dominated field, the WIT site features thoughtful and reputable articles on social and theological issues. On the other hand, the Millennial Gospel Tumblr blog takes a more informal approach, for those who may not think theology is accessible. The Millennial Gospel imagines Biblical characters as modern radicals to make religion inherently revolutionary, and uses modern pop music with spiritual themes to replace traditional worship music. The creators explicitly name the blog’s purpose as challenging dominant narratives.
Furthermore, individual women can engage critically with dominant religious narratives. Candice Benbow and Rev. Traci Blackmon use their individual platforms to speak about often-ignored issues of sexuality and racial justice. Benbow uses her strong social media presence and compilations like her Lemonade Syllabus to further her "red lip theology," a theology meant to empower black women to see themselves as beautiful creations. Rev. Blackmon uses her pastoral platform to promote matters of racial justice, bringing attention to recent issues of racial injustice and calling her congregants to action against injustices. Simply by making their voices heard, these women push back against a dominant narrative of silencing women.
These three categories of religious women online do not evaluate these sites’ engagement as right or wrong. Rather, these categories demonstrate different ways women utilize media to engage religion and theology and explore how each can be used for different purposes. The sites discussed serve different communities, have different goals, and use media differently to achieve those goals. Regardless of their relationship with the dominant narratives and structures of religion, a common experience of marginalization ties these women together. Women are still marginalized voices in religious dialogue, but their words, opinions, and voices, are valuable contributions to the conversation. Their online presence allows them to contribute to the conversation where before they were silenced and dismissed.