An invitation to women apologists: Join the dance!

I am not the first person to say that men and women are different. Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. Guys are Waffles and Girls are Spaghetti. (Although my daughter recently told her older brother that he needed more syrup).

When I was first married, I read a book called You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation by Deborah Tannen. In it, she persuasively argues that women communicate primarily to establish intimacy, while men communicate primarily to establish hierarchy (this, apparently, explains why a man will never ask for directions—because he won’t willingly admit that someone knows more than he does).

In doing my research for this article, I read blog posts from several women who travel around the country actually doing apologetics workshops for women. According to them, a lot of women have to be convinced that apologetics is important. In fact, Mary Jo Sharp’s most recent book, Defending the Faith, is written with the sole purpose of convincing the church that women’s ministry should include apologetics.

My question, however, is not whether apologetics itself has value. I think the fact that I belong to a group called the Christian Apologetics Alliance answers that question. My questions are rather: (1) whether women need a different environment in which to learn apologetics, and (2) whether they’re likely to actually do apologetics differently than men?

The answers I came up with are: (1) it depends on the woman, and (2) mostly, yes.

Do Women Need a Different Environment in Which to Learn Apologetics?

There are plenty of women like Mary Jo Sharp, Holly Ordway, and myself, who don’t care whether a man or woman is teaching them; we simply want the most well-researched, thorough information available. As Mary Jo Sharp recalls in her new book, she was surprised when a friend asked her why a woman would want to attend a session on apologetics:

Though I’m certain I gave her quite a list of reasons for why any person, regardless of gender, should be able to defend their beliefs, she was insistent that we needed to figure out a way to get women, specifically, in the door of an apologetics session. I was puzzled by this. During my time as a graduate student in apologetics, I read many books on the topic, and I had never taken special notice of the authors’ genders. There was never a time when I thought, “Oh drat! Another book by a male! Where are the women?”

Personally, I also don’t mind if my teachers choose to use words like “ontological” or “existentialism” or take the time to explain how a basic syllogism works. And I know other women who also want to make sure they get the deepest, most complete explanations of theology and philosophy they can wade into. How else can we best use our minds to serve Christ?

But I also acknowledge that there are women who don’t feel this way. Women who, as Sarah Ankenman of the International Society for Women in Apologetics says, don’t enjoy attending conferences “that are filled with ideas, theories, and words that are over the average person’s head.” Women, she says, who need someone that “teaches apologetics, but in an easy to understand manner and in smaller bites.”

There are also, according to Sarah, women who prefer to be taught by other women rather than a man.

When you go a bible study for women at church, who teaches it? It is a woman, right? Yet, you are getting the same Scripture teaching the men are getting over in the men’s ministry. The point is that you relate better to another woman. She will see things in Scripture, and be able to apply them to your life in a way a man couldn’t. She understands what you are going through and is sensitive to how God might want to speak to you. Along the same vein, a woman will be able to equip you, the whole woman: heart, soul and mind, in apologetics.

While I don’t agree with the generalization that all women prefer to be taught by other women, I’m sure there’s a large contingent who do. As I said, I don’t work in women’s ministry and Sarah does, so I don’t question her experience. But I have to point out that the exact same thing can be said of men. I know plenty of men who don’t want the big words and complex concepts and would rather be taught by a man rather than a woman.

What I object to is any kind of generalization that makes men or women a monolithic group when it comes to a gender-neutral discipline like apologetics. If some women need an all-women environment, then it should be provided for them. But I, for one, have never assumed that only a woman could equip me “heart, soul, and mind”

Do Women Do Apologetics Differently Than Men?

Now comes the really interesting question: Do women actually do apologetics differently than men? And my answer is…mostly…yes. And I have research to back it up.

Assuming that, as Deborah Tannen said, men communicate to establish hierarchy, it’s only natural that the apologetics practiced by men would reflect this. The stereotypical image of the apologist for the last 50 years has been a man in a suit trying to score philosophical points against his opponent. This is not to say that these men weren’t loving, humble Christians who truly wanted to serve God, only that their apologetics style necessarily reflected their communication style.

Holly Ordway recently wrote an insightful series of posts which she postulates that there are three different modes in which people can intellectually engage with each other. The reason why there are so few women apologists, she says, is the assumption that apologetics must always use what she calls the Fight mode. This is the mode in which the participants sit across from each other, try to keep score as they lob statements at each other, and finally decide on a winner. While the Fight mode is not inherently bad, it comes naturally to many men, but is not the natural mode of most women, who usually steer clear of direct confrontation.

What comes naturally to more women, according to Ordway, is what she calls the Exploration mode. In this mode, both parties move forward together, asking each other questions, and operating primarily as co-supporters of the other’s ideas. The reason there are so few women who cross over from women’s apologetics to the larger arena of academic apologetics is that the Exploration mode feels out of place within the boxing ring of traditional apologetics.

A third way, suggests Ordway, is the Dance. This mode is a combination of Fight and Exploration, in which two people communicate in the same direction, but who are also free to give some gentle push-back now and then. I give Ordway a lot of credit for not stopping with the idea that if Exploration is women’s primary mode of communication, that it should therefore rule in women’s ministry:

Women’s ministries often highlight Exploration mode to the expense of the other two – and all too often water it down into a sentimentalized exploration of feelings rather than ideas. If we are to take our sisters in Christ seriously as disciples in mind as well as heart, we must be intellectually rigorous in whatever mode we use. Women who work with a specifically female audience should think about their chosen mode of teaching. Is there provision for those women who are more analytical thinkers, who would greatly benefit from argument in the Fight or Dance mode?

In her essay for Come Let Us Reason Together (a wonderful book that everyone should own), Toni Allen agrees that, in general, women are hard-wired to avoid conflict. Most of us know someone who got into apologetics not because they loved Jesus, but because they loved arguing. However, most women instinctively shudder at this style of defending the faith. Their natural inclination is to establish a relationship with a person, find out their story, and only then being exploring questions together. In other words, dancing.

A Call to Women Apologists

If I had one frustration with most of the articles I read, it was the assumption that most female apologists work in women’s ministry and primarily teach apologetics to women. While I celebrate the fact that there are women that are called to do this, this is not the only venue in which women apologists work. More importantly, as the culture changes, it will become essential that those women who have not been called to women’s ministry listen to what the Holy Spirit is telling them and step out onto the larger stage.

Even the most ardent supporters of traditional debate-style apologetics acknowledge that culture is changing. I’ve read multiple blog posts and books in the last year repeating the same observations over and over: Appealing to the intellect alone is no longer enough. The defense of Christianity must embrace the whole person: head, heart, and imagination. Those who ridicule Christianity may have weaker arguments but they have a much better grasp on how to bypass the intellect and go straight to the seat of our dreams and longings.

Girls are like spaghetti. Our natural ability to connect logical ideas with intuition and imagination were weaknesses when the primary metaphor for apologetics was a boxing ring. But in a world that is beginning to see the power of narrative and the usefulness of the arts to bypass intellectual barriers and reach directly into the heart, these are strengths.

For women who are called to step out of women’s ministry to become community apologists, it may be the bravest thing they’ve ever done. But the primary metaphor for apologetics is no longer a boxing ring, it is a dance floor.


DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Leslie Keeney

Leslie Keeney is getting her Masters of Philosophical Studies at Liberty University. She is interested in moral apologetics, and how myth, narrative, and pop culture can reveal the best of man’s universal moral intuition. Leslie lives in Lynchburg with her husband, two kids, and two cats. You can connect with her on Google+, Twitter, and Facebook. Leslie blogs at The Ruthless Monk

  • Holly Ordway

    Good post, Leslie – and I’m glad my discussion of the fight/explore/dance idea was helpful in spurring your thinking. I would just add that I think broadening the rhetorical strategies we use in apologetics will be of great benefit to men as well. Even if more men (on average) prefer the ‘fight’ mode, there are many intelligent, thoughtful, articulate men who do not enjoy debate-style argument and who are put off by aggressive argument styles. Making room for Exploration and Dance modes will help make apologetics more inviting for these men as well — thus enriching the field even more.

    • Leslie Keeney

      Absolutely. I know some of these men too. I’m looking forward to what the next few years will bring in apologetics

  • Sarah Ankenman

    Hey Leslie, Sarah Ankenman here. Just wanted to clarify that I don’t think ALL women need other women to teach them to be interested, just that there are some that do and there needs to be a ministry that is willing to cater to them. ISWA does both however. While our speaking team is all women, we employ many resources that are written by the male giants of our faith, and also, many of us teach mixed gender classrooms on college campuses. Otherwise, i enjoyed the post and agree with you wholeheartedly. Blessings.

    • Leslie Keeney

      Sarah, Thanks so much for responding. I absolutely agree that those of both genders should be provided the environments that help them learn best. While I knew that ISWA used resources written by men, I wasn’t aware you taught mixed gender classes. Sorry for missing that on the website. Sounds like a great ministry!

  • James Aldridge

    While I definitely agree that women’s ministry should have an apologetics component, I am not sure I agree with the premise that women ought or should learn apologetics from only other women. I am an avid reader of apologetics material (and I man) and I have found that a number of the really good apologists of our generation (i.e. Ravi Zacharias, Mark Mittelberg, et al) expound biblical truths in a clear, concise and accessible manner to a diverse audience of men and women. In addition, in all of their writings is an admonition of I Peter 3:15 to “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” Rude, aggressive and offensive postures only drive people away, not draw them near. To the point made in the blog of the image of the Christian apologist for the last 50 years is a man who tries to score philosophical points against his opponent: I agree that may be what people think of as an apologist. However, such a view does not conform with the leading (male) apologists of our generation. Rather, when I watch a video recording of William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga or Ravi Zacharias I am struck by the peace and calmness of these individuals even as they present truth claims to a hostile opponent such as Bart Ehrman or someone of the ilk of Richard Dawkins. I think that a women’s ministry would do well to incorporate some of these materials into their curricula in addition to the works of Mary Jo Sharp or Holly Ordway and other excellent apologetic works written by women. And I would emphasize that a woman’s ability to relate well with others is an excellent strength when engaging people with the truth-claims of God. I think in the body of Christ God has given men and women a number of giftings to glorify himself and to reach a lost and dying world for Messiah. I think Christian men and women would do well to learn from each other on apologetics, and that includes learning from all the best and the brightest from our generation regardless of gender.