Walking With the Women of the New Testament by Heather Farrell contains 60 meditations on women of the New Testament. All the named women in the New Testament are featured, as well as many who are not, such as Jesus’ sisters and the mother of the man born blind.
At 291 pages the book has heft to it, and this tangible fact relays one of its main messages: that women in the New Testament were numerous and real, with “real lives, real feelings, and real problems.” Each entry begins with the scriptural passage telling the woman’s story and artwork depicting her story, and is followed by a 2-3 page meditation by Farrell in which she frames the story in terms of its historical context and/or the possible feelings and motivations of the woman in the story, and then a reflection on a spiritual lesson to be gained from the story.
For example on the Widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-15), Farrell writes,
“We don’t know if this young man’s death was the result of a long drawn out illness or an unexpected accident, but no matter how she died, it is likely that his mother’s grief was fresh. She may have only had hours to process the news of his death and all the implications that came with it. As a widow, with no male to take care of her, this woman’s plight might have been hard indeed. The newness of her grief makes Christ’s tender words, “Weep not” (verse 13) all the more powerful. He was telling her that even though her grief seemed unbearable, she wouldn’t have to mourn much longer.”
Farrell then explains the etymology of compassion (“He had compassion on her.” (verse 13)), and notes that “in the accounts we have of Jesus raising someone from the dead, all of them are done in the presence of, and usually on behalf of, women.” This is an interesting insight I’d never thought of. Farrell continues,
“Raising a person from the dead is an incredible miracle for anyone to witness. Yet I can’t help but feel that it has special meaning for women, whose bodies create mortal life and who spend so much of their time nurturing and shaping lives. It seems to me that Christ wanted to demonstrate to women that He had power over the grave.”
I think the meditation on the Widow of Nain is reasonably representative of the other entries in the book. It’s a heartfelt and faithful reading that reflects Farrell’s original impetus in studying the scriptures with a focus on the women’s stories. She writes, “I wanted to gain a better testimony of God’s love for women and better understand women’s roles.” So she kept a journal as she read, which gave rise to this book. She encourages readers to do the same: read while reflecting on suggested questions, read between the lines, and rely on the Holy Ghost. She acknowledges that the details about these women are scarce, and that “while there is much truth in the Bible, some of it is missing, and if we want those gaps filled in, we don’t have to turn to outside sources. The Holy Ghost can enlighten our understanding and teach us.” While I agree that the Holy Ghost is the unparalleled teacher of truth and wisdom, I would also have liked if the book delved deeper into other historical and scholarly work that has been done on the subject. I generally prefer exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation of a text, or reading “out of” a text), and this book includes quite a bit of eisegesis (an interpretation that expresses the interpreters ideas, or reading “into” a text).
I feel I must point out that while Farrell’s book is a thoughtful and comprehensive meditation on the women of the New Testament, it is not what I would consider a feminist reading of them. It does not challenge current gender roles in the Church or attempt to stretch the understanding of roles that women in the New Testament may have held. For example one of the questions she suggests readers reflect on in their scripture reading is, “What type of influence would she [the woman in the story] have had on those around her?” She writes of current times:
“I think the problem is that in our society we often don’t see women. Too often we take their influence in our lives and in society for granted. Similarly in the scriptures, we simply don’t see the women. The pages of the scriptures are filled with their stories and their influence, but too often we skip right past them, not even realizing they are there.”
Seeing women in the scriptures and in the world is something feminists have long fought for, but when the focus is on their “influence” I think we lose the perspective of their being agents unto themselves, not just an influence on the other actors or agents in a story. Too often in the Church praising the “influence” of women is done as a way of deflecting attention from the fact that they hold so little actual power.
That said, this book acknowledges the women of the New Testament as being more present, both in numbers and in significance, than some would suppose. I think it would make a good addition to Church member’s libraries (it is definitely written from an LDS perspective) and would be a great resource in preparing for talks and lessons as a way of finding examples of gospel principles in the lives of women in scripture.