By Dr. Mike Graves, Scholar in Residence
One of my good friends finished off 2019 by reading his 52nd title of the year. Unless a person’s diet of reading is limited to Dr. Seuss or Daniel Tiger, a book per week is impressive. Of course, my friend is a professor, so reading is part of his work. Personally, I have never kept count of my reading habits. Of late, in addition to theological titles, some of my favorites include the memoir Educated by Tara Westover, a book that shook me to the core; as well as Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Reading Westover’s memoir and Atwood’s novel back-to-back, the similarities were unnerving. These books have blown me away, left me speechless. Ok, maybe not speechless, because my wife has listened to me go on and on after finishing each of them.
Although it’s been several years now since I first read it, one of my favorite books is Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. In some ways it is a book about books and the role they can play in our lives, personally but also on a societal level. Lolita, for those who don’t know, is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, the somewhat scandalous tale of an older man who has illicit relations with a younger girl. It is not so much about sex as power, which is often the case, as the “Me Too” movement has demonstrated. The antagonist in the novel owns Lolita. Nafisi’s work is more of a commentary on reading itself, especially in oppressive times. Reading Lolita in Tehran is Nafisi’s memoir of teaching western literature at two different universities in Iran, all of this during the fundamentalist Islamic regime change when the authorities tried to own the people, especially women. The powers did not look favorably on Nafisi teaching western literature to women. What might happen if these women thought for themselves?
What all these books have in common is the empowerment of women, which is a subtheme in the Gospels as well. We know some of them by name, the sisters Mary and Martha, for example, who were friends with Jesus and had him over for dinner, as well as the lesser-known Chloe, who hand-delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans. These are amazing stories. But so many others remain nameless (the woman at the well, the woman with a hemorrhage). Nameless or otherwise, the stories in the Gospels as well as more recent titles remind us that women’s stories matter a great deal. And for that we should be grateful.