By Alex Macias
Whether or not she actually said this, Eleanor Roosevelt is often quoted as saying, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” It’s a poignant message: pettiness is a base quality. Challenge yourself to discuss possibilities. But there’s a lot in our culture that declares gossip and superficiality to be the realm of women. The entertainment industry is awash with women criticizing other women over fashion, the Bravo! channel is making millions off the drama of some of the wealthiest women in America, and just about every show designed to entice my daughter features girls…being mean to other girls. Ugh.
Alright, I’ll admit I am not immune to the lure of celebrity gossip, fluffy reading, and infectious bubblegum pop songs, but when I encounter women who write gritty novels, sing soulful songs, and deliver crass (but so true!) jokes, I feel at home. These are women who admit to and confront the grim reality, rather than being oblivious, ignoring, or blatantly denying that it exists, and manage to still find hope, humor, and beauty among it. They travel through the depths instead of bobbing at surface level as women are so often encouraged to do. (Side note: some of my favorite authors who eloquently do this include Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, and my most recent favorite is Zadie Smith who writes about race, class, war, sex and so on with an honesty that is at times disturbing and yet simultaneously hilarious and profound.)
But telling it like it is is not necessarily a characteristic that is valued in women. It’s certainly not ladylike. Growing up, this was never more evident than in the church. Rarely did I see the same daring exposure of the truth among Christian women as I did among my favorite authors and artists, and it was disappointing. Keeping quiet was a safe response for a woman in a Christian community, and I saw it as hiding behind modesty. Today, I am certainly not opposed to the quiet strength of humility. Sometimes this is the most powerful. But it is refreshing to me, life-giving even, to see a woman bold enough to speak the truth – a woman who courageously names what needs to be named instead of holding her tongue out of politeness or fear.
For three years, I worked for Dr. Linda Cannell while she served as the academic dean of North Park Seminary. Over the years, Linda has served on and led various seminary faculties, church staffs, and nonprofit organizations in the U.S. and abroad in the areas of Christian education, formation, and development. While working with her, I found that Linda is certainly a woman who tells it like it is. I have the sense that chit chat might actually be torturous for her and don’t get me started on how she feels about meetings. Rather than the image of quiet strength, Linda embodies another important role for women of the church: the “Mother in Israel.” Cheryl Exum defines this honorific title, in her examination of Deborah in the fourth and fifth chapters of Judges, as a woman who liberates, protects, and helps her people to grow. Deborah, while not a biological mother, becomes the mother of the people of Israel because of her leadership, military might, and prophetic gifts. Linda is worthy of the title because of her boldness and her commitment to formation.
I’ve seen how in her leadership, she confronts challenges. In her counsel, she reveals her interest in developing the whole person. In her teaching, she respects the student, especially the child. She plows through the petty to get to the core. Being on her team has helped me to wield my own voice for effecting change and advocating for myself and others.
Though she’s “retired” (still busy as ever!), Linda continues to make time to meet with me from time to time to sit and flesh out ideas. Though we may talk of family, we generally skip most personal details in favor of diving into plans and strategizing over new projects and future growth. For that I am so grateful. We need matriarchs like Linda in the church, women who have fought hard, have the wisdom to guide a community, and are confident that God has entrusted them with a voice capable of teaching, challenging, advocating, and articulating new possibilities.
And Linda, if you’re reading this, I hope this touch-feely post doesn’t make you gag.