Seeing Women: My Foreword to Nijay Gupta's Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church
It releases tomorrow! You want this book.
This is the first foreword I have agreed to write. I didn’t do it lightly. When Nijay Gupta sent me the manuscript, I read it in two sittings. I knew without a doubt I wanted to be a part of it—and I am so honored to have my name linked with his. This is the book I wish I had read as a teenager. I wish I had this book to give to lead teenage girl bible studies. I wish I had this book to give to the pastors in my church. The good news is that we have Tell Her Story now. I am so honored to share my foreword with you.
Printed with permission by IVP Academic.
Wind gusted through the streets of Salisbury that morning, rushing past in an audible swirl as the door closed behind me. An abrupt silence followed, ringing almost as loud as the wind. For the first time I stood inside the parish church of St. Thomas and St. Edmund. It was founded in the thirteenth century to provide the workers building Salisbury Cathedral a place to worship, but the current church dates mostly from the fifteenth century.
What I had come to see was one of the fifteenth-century additions: the “Dome” (Last Judgement) mural stretched high above the chancel arch. Sometime between 1470 and 1500 a local artist painted the resurrected Christ sitting on a double rainbow in judgement over the saved and the damned. Vibrant robes of red, blue, gold, and green drape the twelves disciples lined up at his feet; angels with trumpets and wings welcome the blessed into the streets of heaven; and scaly demons drag unrepentant sinners into the jaws of hell, the words “Nulla est Redemptio (There is no escape for the wicked)” making sure viewers understood their fate.
It is a stunning sight.
I don’t remember how long I stood there, just staring at the image. I finally looked away because I was short on time and there was more to see. Tucked away to the right of the Dome mural, three more late fifteenth-century paintings grace the interior of the stone arches separating the nave from the Lady chapel. Although less well restored and much smaller than the depiction of the Final Judgement, they show scenes just as significant to medieval Christians: the Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, and the Adoration of the Magi. Again, I stood transfixed, looking mostly at the center image in which Mary—her visibly pregnant body juxtaposed with her long flowing hair, the symbol of her virginity—greeted her also visibly pregnant cousin. The faded colors of the image do not dull the women’s joy as they each touch the swollen belly of the other. Not only do they see the miracle God has wrought within their bodies, but the fifteenth-century artist who painted them made sure that all who visited the church would see that miracle too.
Except that, for more than two hundred years, no one did.
For more than two hundred years, no one knew these medieval paintings existed.
According to the official church guide, the walls were whitewashed during the Reformation—hiding the striking medieval Catholic scenes behind a drab coat of Protestant white. For generations worshippers came and went through this church, not much more than a stone’s throw from the soaring spire of Salisbury Cathedral. They listened to sermons, sang hymns, celebrated weddings, and buried their friends. Their eyes would have wandered across the wood beamed ceiling and stone walls around them. Yet, until 1819 when someone investigated the traces of color in the chancel arch above, no one who had been inside the church of St. Thomas after the sixteenth century had seen the medieval paintings that were (and had always been) right before their eyes.
As I read Nijay Gupta’s Tell Her Story, it struck me how much women in the early church are like these medieval paintings in St. Thomas. Just as Deborah was called by God to lead Israel and did so successfully, with wisdom and integrity, Jewish women served their synagogues in leadership roles, even as synagogue rulers. Should it surprise us, then, that women in the early church led in similar ways? From women disciples like Mary Magdalene and Joanna the wife of Chuza who traveled with Jesus and learned from him, showing up as Gupta writes “when the men were nowhere to be found,” to ministry couples like Priscilla and Aquila in which the wife took the foremost role, to Lydia of Philippi who led a house church, diakonoi like Phoebe of Cenchrea, co-workers like Euodia and Syntyche, and even apostles like Junia imprisoned for her ministry work, women in the early church led with the approval and support of men around them. Like the fifteenth-century painter who rounded Mary’s belly with his brush and lit her face with a smile as she welcomed her cousin, Nijay Gupta breathes historical life into the dry bones of these biblical women--showing us the vivid reality of their leadership. Just like the Dome painting soaring about the nave in St. Thomas, women led in the early church. The problem has never been their existence. The problem has only been our ability to see them.
This is the brilliance of Tell Her Story.
It does not tell a new story; it just helps us see the story as it has always been. The modern restorations in the parish church of St. Thomas and St. Edmund did not paint the scene of the Last Judgement or the visitation between Mary and Elizabeth; the restorations only helped us see what the medieval artist had already done. In the same way, Tell Her Story helps us see biblical women as they have always been—faithful leaders called by God and recognized by the early church. What Nijay Gupta has done for us is simply, brilliantly, remove the whitewash.
God has always seen women.
I’m so thankful for Nijay Gupta because, in Tell Her Story, he helps us see them too.
Congratulations, Nijay! Tell Her Story
Love it! Thank you so much, Dr. Barr
Oh, I’m looking forward to reading this.